Even the most stalwart football fans in the Northern Virginia delegation are taking a knee on legislation to help facilitate a Virginia stadium for the Washington Commanders.
What had seemed a few months ago to be an easy win for the team is now going into the books as … if not an outright loss, at best, a tie. More of a game not played.
Even Gov. Glenn Youngkin, who in his first address to the General Assembly surprised everyone by endorsing the stadium, declined to use his budget amendments to attempt a Hail Mary. Still, Youngkin made it clear earlier this week he hasn’t given up on the idea.
“I’d like to have a professional sports team” in Virginia, he said, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
The governor’s interest is both understandable – and curious.
Understandable, because major league sports do serve a certain vanity role. They signal that a city has “arrived.” At some public relations level, Nashville is now taken more seriously not simply because it’s emerging as a business center in the South, but because it now has a National Football League team (the Tennessee Titans) and a National Hockey League team (the Nashville Predators), and would like to get a Major League Baseball team.
Curious, because in many ways Virginia already has a team – the Washington Commanders. They are certainly the home team for the state’s largest media market; they just don’t play in the state.
This poses a philosophical question: Does it really matter where the team plays eight times or nine times a year? (The NFL’s regular season is currently 17 games.)
There are some bottom-line reasons to be in favor of a Virginia stadium for the team. What team owner Daniel Snyder envisions isn’t simply a stadium, but 200 acres of surrounding development – a whole “stadium city” similar to what the Los Angeles Rams are doing with their stadium complex in Inglewood, California. We’re talking offices, restaurants, an amphitheater for concerts. If all that came to pass, we’re talking a lot of state tax revenue. A study commissioned by the team, and obtained by the Richmond Times-Dispatch, projected that the stadium complex, if fully developed, would generate $3.04 billion for the state over 30 years – and a total economic impact of $24.7 billion. Since that study was paid for by the team, I suspect these figures aren’t lowballed but suffice it to say, a lot of development would generate a lot of tax revenue for the state.
That’s of interest to us in Southwest and Southside because the state subsidizes most of the cost for our school systems – so more money in state coffers indirectly helps our school funding, at least in theory. (There are always lots of hands reaching into the till for other programs, of course.) The question of whether the state should get involved with the stadium is really a political one. Stadium supporters say not a dime of tax dollars would go toward the stadium – instead, the state would create an authority that would issue $1 billion worth of bonds. In effect, the state would forgo $1 billion in future tax revenues. That may not be that much different from incentives the state offers to certain other businesses; they just feel different when they’re for a sports franchise, especially one where the owner is said by Forbes to be worth $4 billion. The state offered lots of incentives for Amazon to locate in Virginia and Jeff Bezos is worth a bazillion dollars (a rough estimate; Forbes says he’s worth $171 billion).
One big difference, though: Amazon potentially will create jobs throughout the state, not just in Northern Virginia. I’ve heard of information technology workers in Southwest Virginia getting jobs to work remotely for Amazon. The company is helping fund computer science programs across the state. Even Highland County, the smallest county in the state with fewer than 3,000 residents (and a high school where the graduating class this year was 17), now gets funding from the Amazon Future Engineers Program. I doubt that the Washington Commanders will create a similar supply chain downstate. Amazon might help seed other tech companies in Virginia – not all those students studying computer science will go to work for Amazon. Will the Commanders do the same? The question answers itself. A future stadium city would generate tax revenue, and that’s not to be discounted, but it’s not the same as the Amazon deal.
That makes this a harder vote for some legislators (which is why the General Assembly has punted on an actual vote). The optics are different when it comes to sports venues. That’s also why I’ve suggested that the General Assembly use any future stadium bill to carve out a revenue stream for something – anything – in Southwest and Southside Virginia. Maybe it’s school construction. Maybe it’s economic development. The details don’t really matter at this point. The idea is to create a vivid way for the stadium to benefit the rest of the state in a more direct way than helping fill state coffers. Yes, the state is granting this tax break to a multi-billionaire, but look at the revenue stream we get in return. So far, no legislator has taken me up on that idea.
Of course, right now nothing is happening. The Commanders seem to be doing a remarkably good job of defeating themselves. Snyder took over one of the most popular teams in the league. Once the team regularly filled all 91,704 seats at FedEx Stadium in Maryland, the largest stadium in the league. Over the years, it’s been removing seats because the team can’t fill them, according to The Bleacher Report. Last year the team ranked 31st out of 32 teams in attendance, averaging 52,751 fans per game. This is a rather remarkable shrinkage. The plans for the new stadium call for 55,000 seats, which would make it the smallest in the league – although there’s a counter-argument that a small stadium makes sense: If seats are harder to come by, the team can charge more for them. Still, if the team thought it could sell more tickets, it surely would, right?
The dwindling attendance is one of many reasons why state Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax, the team’s biggest supporter in the legislature, withdrew his support for the stadium bill. “I don’t have confidence in the Washington Commanders as a viable NFL franchise,” he said. “What happens if Dan Snyder builds a stadium or the team builds a stadium, and we build all the infrastructure around it, and five years later they’re getting 20,000 people, [and] they’re like ‘we’re out of here?’ And then we’re sitting there with an empty building on I-95.”
That wasn’t even the strongest part of what Petersen had to say. It was this: “Would it be almost more palatable to do this with an expansion franchise than the current franchise?” Petersen said. “Let’s face it, I think the answer to that may be yes.” He didn’t say it outright, but he effectively said: Snyder ought to move the team to some city desperate for an NFL franchise, any NFL franchise, and let the Washington market start over with an expansion team. Frankly, I’m surprised we haven’t seen some NFL-less city – San Diego or St. Louis, San Antonio or Portland, Toronto or London (both markets the NFL has experimented with) – make a pitch for the team. The fact that they haven’t (at least publicly) might tell us something.
And then there’s this: That precipitous drop in support came before the team’s defensive coordinator, Jack Del Rio, sparked controversy by dismissing the Jan. 6, 2021, storming of the U.S. Capitol as a “dust-up,” when it looks increasingly like part of an attempted coup. After that, there was zero hope of getting a stadium deal through the legislature, at least right now. All this stands as a textbook example of how to devalue a brand. Right now, Virginia isn’t acting on a stadium. The District of Columbia doesn’t want the team in Robert F. Kennedy Stadium. And Maryland doesn’t seem to particularly care whether the team stays or goes. I really do wonder when Snyder might start to flirt with other cities.
In any case, all those are details. Important details, perhaps, but details nonetheless. I want to focus on the philosophical aspect. Does Virginia really need a NFL team?
Now, “need” is a value-laden word. If the mayor of one of those cities mentioned above raised his or her hand and said “yes, we want this team,” I’d understand it. Those markets don’t have an NFL team. Acquiring one would send a certain signal – it’s a prestige thing. But the Virginia market already has a team – this one. Other than the tax revenue a stadium city might bring, is there any prestige benefit to the team playing its home games in Woodbridge as opposed to Landover, Maryland?
The governor isn’t the only one who seems to think so. “This is not about what we can do for the Commanders — this is about Virginians finally getting a team,” Del. Lamont Bagby, D-Henrico County, told The Washington Post. “Virginia fans deserve to reap all the benefits of a team and hope that this will be the first of more to come.” So this is, at least, a bipartisan sentiment.
I, for one, am skeptical. Now, as a journalist, I get paid to be skeptical so maybe my skepticism doesn’t mean much. Still, let’s look at some context. The Commanders are an unusual team because their immediate market spans two states, and one quasi-state in D.C. This is a team talking about staying in the same market but changing states, an unusual option. The closest analogies I can think of are the New York Giants and New York Jets, whose named city is in one state but whose joint home stadium is in another – East Rutherford, New Jersey.
Do the Giants and Jets elevate the New Jersey brand because they play across the Hudson River in what Bruce Springsteen calls “the swamps of Jersey”? If you think the answer is “yes,” then that buttresses the argument that having the Washington Commanders play on Virginia soil (or maybe Virginia artificial turf?) would bring Virginia some prestige. If you think the answer is “no,” then that argument is undermined by the only relevant example. Of course, there’s one easy fix to that that I haven’t seen anyone mention: Virginia could demand, as a condition of its involvement, that the team bear the name “Virginia” as in the Virginia Commanders. Would the governor or any legislator go that far?
There is precedent for such a thing. The baseball team now known as the Los Angeles Angels began life as, well, the Los Angeles Angels. In 1965, they moved to Anaheim and became the California Angels. In 1997, the city of Anaheim put up $30 million toward a $118 million stadium renovation, with the condition that the team be called the Anaheim Angels. So they were – thus setting a market price for such conditions. If Virginia someday does issue a $1 billion bond for a Commanders stadium, that would seem to exceed the demonstrated going rate for demanding naming rights. In 2005, the team was sold and the new owner thought Los Angeles was a better marketing name but was constrained by the previous conditions, so the team became awkwardly known as the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. The city of Anaheim thought that was a trick play and sued. The city lost. In 2016, after some more legal wheeling and dealing, the team’s name reverted to the Los Angeles Angels. If Virginia ultimately facilitates a stadium for a team that neither Washington nor Maryland seem to want, why shouldn’t the team bear the Virginia name? It’s not as if we’d be changing some historic team name; that’s already happened.
I also feel compelled to point out some other inconvenient facts: The Washington Commanders, whatever they’re called, aren’t Virginia’s team. They’re part of Virginia’s team. Across Southwest and Southside, more radio stations broadcast Carolina Panthers games than games by the former Washington Football Team. Far Southwest Virginia falls under the Tennessee Titans’ television market. That’s not me expressing a fan’s point of view; that’s just me reporting what the free market has already decided. Just because the Commanders play their games in Northern Virginia won’t automatically trigger latent feelings of state pride in parts of Virginia that already look to other teams.
I notice that the governor’s desire to have a “professional sports team” in the state doesn’t specify a sport. Technically, we already have professional sports teams. Virginia is home to five minor league baseball teams (the Fredericksburg Nationals, the Lynchburg Hillcats, the Norfolk Tides, the Richmond Flying Squirrels and the Salem Red Sox) and two minor league hockey teams (the Norfolk Admirals and the Roanoke Rail Yard Dawgs). I understand the governor’s meaning, though. He means a major league team. Good for him for thinking big. But how realistic is this given the existing sports geography?
Virginia had a major league team in the past, assuming you consider the now-defunct American Basketball Association to be a major league. From 1970 to 1976, that league included the Virginia Squires, who mostly played their home games in Hampton, Norfolk and Richmond, but for two years included some games in Roanoke and for one year included games in Salem. For a few days in 1971, the team thought it might get immediately absorbed into the National Basketball Association, which would have put the Roanoke Valley in the NBA, but those merger negotiations never bore fruit – and by the time the NBA did take in some ABA teams, the Squires were no more.
Virginia Beach has occasionally harbored the notion of an NBA team. In 2012, there were reports that the owners of the Sacramento Kings were looking at moving the team there (they didn’t). In 2017, the sports website SB Nation pegged Seattle and Virginia Beach as likely spots for expansion teams. That expansion didn’t happen, and the talk now is that the NBA’s top two targets are Seattle and Las Vegas. There are some arguments in favor of the Hampton Roads market. It’s one of the largest metros in the country without a major league team of any kind. However, “one of the largest” isn’t the same as “the largest.” There are 12 bigger metros that don’t have NBA teams: Riverside-San Bernadino-Ontario, California, being the biggest, followed by Seattle, Tampa, Baltimore, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Austin, Las Vegas, Cincinnati, Kansas City, Columbus and San Jose. There are probably good reasons why some of those don’t have teams – Tampa is probably too close to the Orlando Magic, Baltimore too close to the Washington Wizards, Columbus too close to the Cleveland Cavaliers, San Jose too close to the Golden State Warriors. Still, Virginia Beach doesn’t seem a likely NBA location anytime soon.
The Hampton Roads area made a play for a National Hockey League expansion team in the 1990s – the mythical Hampton Roads Rhinos – but lost out to Columbus and Minneapolis. The season ticket drive didn’t sell many tickets and political leaders were hesitant to commit to funding an arena. Sports leagues like it best when taxpayers foot the bill. Nonetheless, the Hartford Whalers toyed with moving to Hampton Roads but instead went to Raleigh to become the Carolina Hurricanes. Their proximity probably forecloses any possibility of an NHL team in Hampton Roads.
Virginia took several swings at the bat at landing a Major League Baseball team, specifically one based in Arlington. In 1993, a Northern Virginia-based group bid for an expansion team, losing out to Miami and Denver. In 1998, the group bid again and made the final four, before losing out to Phoenix and Tampa Bay. There were efforts to buy – and move – the Houston Astros and Montreal Expos. Both fell through. In 2003, there was another big push to acquire the Expos. The General Assembly even created a baseball authority to make that happen. The team stayed put in Quebec. When the team finally moved after the 2004 season, it went to the District to become the Washington Nationals instead of the Virginia Whatevers.
Bonus fact: In 1974, the Orlando-based Florida Blazers of the upstart (and soon to be defunct) World Football League held their training camp in Harrisonburg at what was then Madison College (and is now James Madison University). That’s not the same as a Virginia-based team but if you’ve read this far, you’re entitled to one more cool fact.
So what’s all this mean? It means that if the governor wants a major league sports team playing in Virginia, his only realistic shot is the Commanders – unless he wants to make a buzzer-beating heave for an NBA team in Hampton Roads.
So here’s something to set off a good debate on sports talk radio: Which team would bring more prestige to the state, an NFL team in Northern Virginia that bears the Washington name, or an NBA team in Hampton Roads that bears the Virginia name? We’ll be right back after this break …