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Ted Leonsis Finally Abandons Glenn Youngkin’s Doomed Virginia Gambit

Ted Leonsis talks into a Wizards-branded microphone.
Craig Hudson for The Washington Post via Getty Images

Well well well. Look which billionaire sports owner found himself at another ceremony Wednesday afternoon, celebrating a tentative agreement with another local politician to secure public funding for another arena project. It's Ted Leonsis, owner of the NBA's Wizards, the NHL's Capitals, and the WNBA's Mystics, delivering the final death-blow to the legacy-making development ambitions of Virginia governor and slimy vermin Glenn Youngkin, on whose radioactive shoulder Leonsis rested a grateful cheek at another of these announcement ceremonies not four months ago.

To hear Leonsis tell it, he had something of an epiphany during negotiations with D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, negotiations that evidently continued well past his having made a very public commitment to Youngkin's project. Speaking Wednesday from the smaller-scale signing ceremony held at the Wizards' and Caps' downtown arena, Leonsis said that "all of a sudden I really felt like we were in this together and that D.C.—it's where I wanted to be." Per the Washington Post—while declining to get into the specifics of what changed his mind about Youngkin's Potomac Yard proposal along Alexandria's waterfront— Leonsis said that he's "had a better experience on the business side in D.C. than I just did in Virginia," which helped to persuade him to give the city's besmirched and beleaguered downtown neighborhood another chance.

Let us take this time to state honestly what has happened here, because Leonsis and Youngkin never will. The Potomac Yard plan was effectively killed by Virginia's Senate, which is controlled by Youngkin's political opponents. Youngkin introduced this proposal late in the state's two-year budget process, and without having done the legwork of building support in both chambers of his state's general assembly. He gained some cross-aisle support in the Virginia House of Delegates, but Democrats in the Senate signaled skepticism of his plan, and indicated pretty openly that they would be shopping for concessions in the budget process in exchange for their support. Just about two months after the announcement ceremony, Democrats in both chambers advanced bills establishing a framework for legalizing the sale of marijuana, timing that suggests a test of Youngkin's appetite for compromise.

Youngkin, a sneering MAGA grandstander masquerading as a sensible and credentialed moderate, signaled immediately that he would veto the bills, and, in an act of further self-injury, he then made a dumb and inflammatory speech at a mock GOP nominating convention, and gloated about it on Twitter. This reduced greatly the chance that the Potomac Yard proposal would ever see the light of day, and in the process made a minor national hero out of state senator L. Louise Lucas, of Portsmouth, who chairs the Senate finance committee and made it her personal mission to defeat Youngkin's arena deal. Youngkin railed, Leonsis schlepped, Lucas held her ground, the financing plan never made it into the budget, and the Potomac Yard proposal went from a fait accompli to a hail Mary.

Ted Leonsis snuggles with Glenn Youngkin.
No more smooching for these two.Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

Meanwhile, the economic projections used to undergird Youngkin's vision of statewide prosperity were revealed to be preposterous: The Post got ahold of an analysis commissioned by Youngkin showing that the arena math relied on "historically unprecedented" financial projections (like hotel visitors paying $731 a night). Youngkin had some long-shot tools he could theoretically have used for another go at this—the Assembly will reconvene in mid-April to work through Youngkin's vetoes of bills from the just-ended legislative session, whereupon the governor could introduce arena financing as a standalone bill—but the butthead cannot resist any opportunity to try to own the libs. He's spent the weeks since this setback engaged in an extended temper tantrum, taking the form of political retribution. Youngkin has vetoed a whopping 80-plus bills from the session, including marijuana legalization, a whole slew of reasonable gun-control measures, and a bill that would've strengthened consumer protections in the state. "That is what spoiled brats do when they don’t get what they want," quipped Sen. Mamie Locke, of Hampton, after Youngkin vetoed bans on assault-style weapons.

Things got ridiculous enough through March that Scott Surovell, the arena bill's sponsor in the state Senate, cooked up a dead-on-arrival plan to pair a new sports complex with a casino and relocate it to Tysons Corner, a commercial area located at a deadly snarled highway junction in suburban Fairfax County. This proposal was rejected by Youngkin, Leonsis, and virtually everyone else. Things had finally reached such a state of delirious hopelessness that Wednesday morning Alexandria Mayor Justin Wilson announced that his city had withdrawn its support of the Potomac Yard proposal, lamenting that negotiations "did not result in a proposal that protected our financial interests and respected [Alexandria's] community values."

With powerful state Democrats vehemently opposing the public financing route, with supporters desperately pitching an even more politically toxic alternative, without a municipality any longer willing to host this stupid thing, and with Youngkin out there working so steadfastly to entrench his political opposition that you start to wonder whether he might've been in on the act, by the time Leonsis and Bowser sat down and shook hands over a pile of paperwork Wednesday, all other alternatives were deader than shit. Leonsis had a better chance of relocating his team to an orbiting space station than he did of squeezing Virginia tax dollars out of any agreement made with Virginia's governor.

But the agreement with Virginia's governor did help Leonsis squeeze tax dollars out of Washington, D.C. The arrangement with Bowser, which is expected to sail through the D.C. Council, provides a whopping $515 million of public financing for upgrades to the existing arena, and includes provisions for turning over important swaths of real estate to Monumental Sports and Entertainment, the Leonsis-founded company that formally owns the Wizards, Capitals, and Mystics. It was only in the hours before Leonsis attended the Potomac Yard announcement ceremony that Bowser huddled with planners and advanced the bones of this proposal, and it has only gotten juicier in the time since.

This is a huge investment of public money, paid over just three years, from a city that is smaller by population than El Paso. Under other circumstances—ones in which it did not appear that city leaders had just rescued their teams from abduction by a loser Republican with delusions of national prominence—you would expect conscientious observers to vomit opprobrium all over such a grotesque public subsidization of a billionaire sports owner. But this is the state of things: In a world that seems to get crueler by the day, there are your teams and there are the various tyrants who want to misappropriate them. There are no good deals left. There are deals that allow you to keep your dignity and right of self-direction but cost you your teams, and ones that allow you to keep your teams but force you to pay to make a rich person richer. You're getting robbed either way. This way, you at least get to root for your guys.

Except, in this case, your guys are the Washington Wizards. Oh God.

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