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Tuesday, July 17, 2018

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

I don’t know if you missed it, but the First Annual Heritage Polo Tournament was held this past weekend in Poolesville, Maryland.

“This event will host up to 500 general admission and dozens of VIP guests, including professional polo players, diplomats, sports stars, and many other recognized Washingtonians,” the press release read.


With all due respect to the polo community, there have been mid-Julys in Washington when this would have qualified as the biggest sporting event in the area — and not that long ago.


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But the landscape of sports in the region has changed so dramatically over the past two decades that July in Washington has become a sports fan’s buffet — topped off this July with Nationals Park hosting Major League Baseball’s 89th All-Star Game Tuesday night, with a nationwide audience focused on the District.

The All-Star Game — and the polo tournament, let’s not forget the polo tournament — come as Major League Soccer’s D.C. United christened their new 20,000-seat stadium just down the road from Nationals Park.

And we are only a month removed from 500,000 people converging on the District for the parade to celebrate the Washington Capitals’ Stanley Cup championship.

“The crowning achievement was getting the All-Star Game here, a symbolic achievement of how far the District has come,” D.C. Council member Jack Evans said.

You won’t win a Stanley Cup every year, or host an All-Star Game. But Washington’s summer of sports represents for many fans a historic turning point, built on a foundation that didn’t exist a generation ago.

There is so much to choose from now.

The WNBA’s Washington Mystics play from May through August.

Monday night marked the opening of the six-time defending champion Washington Kastles World Team Tennis franchise, which plays its home games at the Smith Center on the campus of George Washington University.

Add in Ted Leonsis’ toy — the Arena Football League, and his Washington Valor franchise, drawing at least several thousand fans to games April through June at the Capital One Arena. The one subtraction is the loss of a PGA tour event, as Tiger Woods’ Quicken Loans National, the event that replaced the long-time Kemper Open, has come to an end after 11 years.

Still, this a remarkable transformation from the sleepy — even comatose — sports town that Washington had been for so many years — generations, really.

Go back to say, 2004 — the year before the Montreal Expos moved to the District and became the Nationals — there was not much of anything on the sports menu.

Evans goes back farther — to a brief period when the District was a sports wasteland.

“I wind the clock back to 1996,” Evans said. “That was the year the Redskins left … and Washington, D.C., became the only major city in America without one professional sports team in its borders.”

The Redskins opened their new Jack Kent Cooke Stadium for the 1997 NFL season, while the Wizards and Capitals didn’t play in Abe Pollin’s new downtown arena until December 1997. The Mystics started play in 1998.

It was that arena — then called the MCI Center — that changed sports forever in the District.

“The MCI Center was the catalyst for changing an entire neighborhood down there,” said Evans. “When that opened, that area was dangerous. Now that area is totally vibrant and exciting.

“You could say the heyday was the fifth game of the Stanley Cup, when you had 20,000 people in the arena and another 50,000 outside in the street and the team was playing in Las Vegas,” Evans said. “That is astonishing.”

Nationals Park followed suit in another part of town — Southeast Washington — though, because it opened during the economic disaster that was 2008, it has taken a while to change that area. But change it has, anchoring development along the Anacostia in Southeast and Southwest Washington that Forbes Magazine recently called one of the 12 best neighborhoods in the world.

“You go to Nats Park and you see the enormous transformation that has taken place around there. There was three strip clubs and a cement factory,” Evans said. “We paid $610 million, 100 percent in taxpayer money to build that stadium. Right now, in that baseball district, we collect $640 million in revenue. So I get 100 percent return … every year. Every year. And it was a 7-6 vote on the Council 12 times.”

Still to come — the opening of the new Wizards practice facility and 5,000 seat arena for the Mystics and the new Capital City Go Go NBA G League team this fall in Congress Heights in Southeast D.C. Development will follow there too, Evans said.

What has happened along the Southeast and Southwest waterfronts is what city officials say will happen with the final piece of the sports development puzzle — the RFK Stadium property, the riverfront there and the wooing of the Redskins to return to Washington.

“That is what we are hoping to achieve over at the RFK site, assuming we can get the Redskins to move back,” Evans said. “I believe that will be the catalyst for the development of that 200-acre site down there and become the next inner city destination.”

⦁ Thom Loverro’s weekly “Cigars & Curveballs” is available Wednesdays on iTunes, Google Play and the reVolver podcast network.


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