- The Washington Times
Wednesday, February 23, 2022

The long-stalled drive for a new NFL stadium in the capital region — derailed in recent years by controversy over the Washington team’s old nickname, accusations of sexual misconduct among the organization’s executives, including owner Dan Snyder, among other things — is suddenly heating up as officials from Virginia, Maryland and the District take steps to jump-start the project.

In Virginia, legislators passed two bills in the House and the Senate to establish a local football stadium authority — a crucial step in luring the Washington Commanders to the state from their home at FedEx Field in Landover, Maryland. Documents connected to the Virginia proposal show plans for a stadium site in Sterling, Woodbridge or Dumfries.

Maryland isn’t ready to give up the franchise without a fight. Lawmakers are reportedly working on an incentives package to keep the team in Landover.

Meanwhile, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser has restated her desire for the Commanders to move back to the city.

What’s changed? Now that the Commanders’ rebrand is out of the way, Mr. Snyder and his staff can shift their attention to the stadium project. The team’s lease at FedEx Field in suburban Maryland expires after 2027. 

“The legislation that’s moving through the Virginia assembly is one we could have passed anytime through the last half-dozen years,” said state Sen. Chap Petersen, a Fairfax Democrat who voted for the Senate bill. “It’s just now apparently the time is right because the team is reaching the end of their lease at FedEx.”

The bills in Virginia would finance more than just the construction of a stadium. Money is also allocated for a massive entertainment complex that has become common in newer NFL stadiums. According to WUSA9, the team’s planning documents call for a 700,000-square-foot stadium alongside a 14,000-seat amphitheater, training facilities, hotels, residential buildings and mixed-use retail.

After they were passed this month with bipartisan support, each bill has headed to the other chamber for a vote. If passed, a committee will hammer out the differences between the bills to create one piece of legislation.

Both bills call for the established authority to issue bonds to help fund the project. On Feb.10, Senate Majority Leader Richard L. Saslaw, Fairfax Democrat, said during a committee meeting that $1 billion in bonds would be issued for construction of the stadium, and the Commanders would contribute $2 billion to complete the rest of the project. 

He said the bonds would not create a “penny of debt” for the state and that the bonds, not backed by the state, would be repaid from local tax revenue generated at the site. He estimated annual revenue of $153 million, with $60 million going to the state’s general fund, $59 million to the locality that hosts the complex and $34 million to repay the bonds. 

The goal is for the stadium to land in either Prince William County or Loudoun County. Mr. Saslaw said at a hearing that Prince William was the team’s preferred location.

“It’s almost a mini-city,” Mr. Saslaw said. “I might add we’re in competition with Maryland and D.C.”

Virginia’s bills earmark nearly half of all sales tax revenue generated at the complex for the stadium authority to use for the team’s benefit.

The Senate bill goes two steps further and allows the authority to keep all corporate income tax as well as most income tax from the salaries of players and executives. That money normally would go to the state’s general fund. 

The Senate bill makes no mention of the stadium’s naming rights, allowing the Commanders to keep all of that revenue, and the House bill calls for the authority to take 50% of the naming rights revenue to help pay back the bonds. 

“I’m comfortable with the overall concept,” Mr. Petersen told The Washington Times. “I’m comfortable with the team to the extent they bring new business to the state, that they can keep a portion of the tax revenue, just like we did with Amazon. That concept is not alien to me.”

Virginia’s renewed effort to lure the Commanders hasn’t gone unnoticed. The Washington Post reported that Maryland officials have been “quietly marshaling hundreds of millions of dollars” to entice the team to stay in Landover. The proposal, also reliant on bonds, would help build an entertainment complex around the site. Since the Commanders own the land around FedEx Field, the team could theoretically build a new stadium at the site.

Staying at FedEx Field, however, doesn’t appear to be an option. Commanders President Jason Wright told the Richmond Times-Dispatch that the team would be in a “new venue” in 2027. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, has said the state would fight to keep the team.

The issue of using bonds to fund stadiums has long been politically divisive. Last week, three Democrats in Congress — Reps. Jackie Speier of California, Don Beyer of Virginia and Earl Blumenauer of Oregon —  introduced a bill that proposed eliminating subsidies for professional stadiums by stripping municipal bonds of their tax-exempt status. According to a March 2020 report from the National Tax Journal, the federal government has lost $4.3 billion in revenue over the past two decades because of bonds used to help fund 43 stadiums built since 2000.

The House Democrats cited Congress’ investigation of the league and team as a reason for the bill.

“Taxpayer-subsidized municipal bonds should no longer be a reward for the Washington Commanders and other teams that continue to operate workplaces that are dens of sexual harassment and sexual abuse,” Ms. Speier said in a statement. “It doesn’t make economic sense, and it’s particularly galling given the league’s longstanding failure to address issues of sexual harassment and sexual assault as well as ongoing racial and gender discrimination and domestic violence.” 

A former cheerleader accused Mr. Snyder of touching her thigh inappropriately and trying to coax her into a limousine during a work event when she was employed by the team. Virginia lawmakers haven’t let the accusations impede the bills from passing. 

In the House, an amendment from Delegate Marcus Simon, Fairfax Democrat, was voted down 51-46 after he proposed that the bill not take effect until the NFL releases the full findings from lead investigator Beth Wilkinson about accusations of sexual misconduct. A similar measure in the Senate didn’t even make it to a vote. Sen. Thomas K. Norment Jr., Williamsburg Republican, called the suggestion “totally inappropriate.” 

In the District, Miss Bowser has publicly called for the Commanders to return, even during the investigations.

On Feb. 3, Miss Bowser told reporters that she envisions an approach similar to the one the city used to fund Audi Field. The city paid for the land, and D.C. United paid for the stadium. In this case, the land that Miss Bowser envisions — the team’s old RFK Stadium — is owned by the federal government, a significant obstacle in moving the project forward. 

“We have always been very clear that we want the Washington Football Team to play in Washington,” Miss Bowser said on Feb. 14. She was referring to the temporary name the team adopted after dropping the “Redskins” moniker under pressure from social activists, business partners and politicians, including Miss Bowser.

As for Virginia’s pursuit, Mr. Petersen told The Washington Times he would like the state to engage a consultant to compare the proposals with other modern stadiums such as those in Las Vegas, Atlanta and Los Angeles. 

“It’s hard for us as politicians, who are down here for 60 days, to negotiate a deal with this complexity,” Mr. Petersen said.

He later added, “You have to be very careful that the state comes out ahead.”

If Washington’s next stadium truly costs $1 billion — or $3 billion with the land — it would fall in line with other NFL-backed ventures. In Las Vegas, the city and the Raiders partnered together to spend $1.9 billion for Allegiant Stadium — $750 million of which was from the state and $1.1 billion from the Raiders. The stadium opened in 2020. 

Before the Raiders, the Falcons and Georgia spent a combined $1.6 million to open Mercedes-Benz Stadium in 2017 — just 25 years after the Georgia Dome opened. According to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, $700 million in public money was used to build the stadium, $200 million of which was in bonds. 

U.S. Bank Stadium, which opened in Minnesota in 2016, cost $1.1 billion, with $498 million from public funds. The state agreed to pay $348 million, and the city of Minneapolis contributed $150 million. 

The largest outlier to the costs is SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, California — a $5.5 billion state-of-the-art facility built with private money. Rams owner Stan Kroenke spearheaded the project. 

The Commanders aren’t the only NFL team in the hunt for a new stadium. In Chicago, the Bears have openly flirted with moving from the city to suburban Arlington Heights. In Buffalo, team officials and lawmakers have gone back and forth to negotiate a new home for the Bills. In Tennessee, the Titans have reportedly begun exploring a new facility because of the rising costs to upgrade Nissan Stadium.

In those other cases, the teams largely have to deal with one state. The Commanders, on the other hand, are balancing three jurisdictions at once.

Mr. Wright, the Commanders’ president, said at an economic forum this month that the team was in no rush to pick a spot. 

“All those jurisdictions are amazing leaders and partners to us,” Mr. Wright said. “Our biggest thing is we can listen to everybody about what their goals are and try to figure out where we fit.” 

• Matthew Paras can be reached at mparas@washingtontimes.com.

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