An unprecedented boost to DC’s economy – possibly something up to $2 billion – including what could potentially be the biggest construction project of the coming decade, presently rests on the whims of a 27-year old millionaire. That would be basketball player Kevin Durant, a top ten NBA player and DC area native, who’s going to be a free agent next year. There’s already been a lot of feverish speculation about where Durant will take his talents when he’s eligible to leave Oklahoma City, arguably the worst NBA city next to Salt Lake City. (It must be torture to be young and wealthy but have to live in a city where Applebee’s doubles as the best restaurant and bar in town.) Signing with his hometown team would represent a lifestyle upgrade and possibly a basketball one, too, since he presently plays on a mediocre team with a sidekick, Russell Westbrook, who insists on playing like he’s the alpha dog even though his talents are beta at best.
When superstar players change teams, they bring a lot of money with them. When Lebron James went from the Miami Heat to his hometown of Cleveland, some experts estimated he boosted the local economy by $500 million. Bars and restaurants around the arena saw business increase by between 20 – 300% on game nights, and development in the area soared. Then there are jersey sales – a Durant Wizards jersey, never mind a retro Bullets one, would be a massive seller – and ticket prices. Wizards tickets are currently the third cheapest in the league, and would likely triple or quadruple in price if Durant came to DC. High rollers paying ten or fifteen thousand for courtside seats also splash money around in other ways – luxury suites, after parties. But the biggest moneymaker from a Durant homecoming would be a new arena to replace the Verizon Center.
The present owner of the Wizards, Ted Leonsis, has already begun angling for a new Wizards arena. He was one of the main proponents of DC’s failed Olympic bid, and he made it known that his teams (he also owns the Capitals) would be more than willing to play in the shiny new stadiums, after the Olympics. (It’s highly likely that his involvement in the Olympic bid was just a sneaky attempt to get the city, the feds, and the USOC to build new stadiums for his sports franchises. Rich people don’t get rich by being obvious and shortsighted.) The existing arena is almost twenty years old, which is ancient in stadium years; out of 31 NBA franchises, only two play in arenas older than the Verizon Center, and one of those is Madison Square Garden, which is perpetually being upgraded.
Leonsis has already parlayed a potential Durant signing into a $56 million Wizards practice facility at St. Elizabeth’s, 75% of which will be funded by the city, by claiming a separate practice facility would be enticing to future free agents. A larger stadium, which could cost close to a billion dollars, would be a harder sell, though. A Durant-led team would probably have to win a championship to whip up enough goodwill for public arena funding. The era when owners paid for their own arenas, like Abe Pollin did with the Verizon Center, are long past – these days, city governments pitch in a few (or several) hundred million, or the franchise bolts for a city who will. (Even the independent Pollin went to the city for $60 million when it came time to renovate the Verizon Center, in 2007.) With the Wizards’ profile as low as it is right now, the Wizards would have to have a trophy parade down 7th Street before the Council, much less the voters, would go for a new tax to fund construction on a new stadium. This wouldn’t be easy; a Durant/Wall-led team might not even be in the top three in the Eastern Conference.
But even if that did somehow happen, there’s still the question of where the new arena would be. The Verizon Center sits on some of the most highly-valued land in the District, and it would have to be tempting to follow the FBI’s example, sell off to developers for an unprecedented sum, and decamp to the suburbs, or at least to a less-developed part of the city. In this context, the St. Elizabeth’s practice facility could be seen as a kind of pilot project; if it, as hoped, leads to a revitalization of the area, it’s probably likely that Leonsis would sell the Verizon Center for a cool billion, and put his new Wizards arena next to the practice facility. With the city east of the river already on the rise, it’s a perfect site for another stadium, across the water from Nationals Park and just a stone’s throw from the upcoming DC United arena at Buzzard Point. Still, there’s a lot of superstar recruiting and basketball to be done before then, not mention a re-election or two for Bowser, the most important proponent of the “revitalization by stadium” school of thought. Whether this approach actually works, well, that’s a whole other article.