Washington Wizards owner Ted Leonsis searches for site to build practice facility

Ted Leonsis, former AOL executive and majority owner of the Washington Wizards and Washington Mystics basketball teams, said recently that he would like to build a new practice facility for the teams near to the arena where they play, the Verizon Center.

Shortly thereafter Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) said he would “love” to have such a facility in the District, particularly if it were sometimes open to the community.

Leonsis hasn’t said a lot about what type of complex he envisions, other than that he would like it to be near the Verizon Center, accessible to public transit and potentially similar to the Kettler Capitals Iceplex in Ballston, where the Washington Capitals (another Leonsis team) practice.


Washington Wizards owner Ted Leonsis and point guard John Wall. (Evan Vucci/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

But finding space for such a facility, in an ever more expensive downtown, may not be so easy.

In 1997, the year the Verizon Center opened (as the MCI Center), there were around 100 surface parking lots available for development. Today there are less than 15, and they are mostly accounted for as places to build.

Rich Bradley, executive director of the Downtown Business Improvement District, said he doesn’t see a major basketball complex getting built downtown because of how valuable real estate has become for offices, housing or retail.

“The values downtown are just too big,” Bradley said.

Even in NoMa, behind Union Station, retail space sometimes rents for more than $50 per square foot, according to Robin-Eve Jasper of the NoMa Business Improvement District. She said it generally wasn’t worth it for developers to design buildings with 40,000- or 50,000-square-foot floor plates that could fit a basketball court, even if part of the practice space was underground.

“At ground level, if you’re trading off retail versus a facility like this, you’d be giving up a lot of value,” she said.


There aren't many places left to build downtown. (Courtesy: Downtown BID)

The existing practice court couldn’t be more convenient, since it’s part of the Verizon Center, but it is dated and cramped compared to courts built by competing teams.

Brett Fuller, director of business development at the engineering and architecture firm AECOM, worked on the Verizon Center when it was built. He said upgraded practice facilities have become increasingly common among NBA teams.

“Regardless of the scenarios, as part of the building or as a stand-alone separate facility, they need to attract free agents, they need to have this be an experience — it’s almost like recruiting a student athlete to college,” Fuller said.

“If you’re a free agent, and you’re going to sign a contract for millions of dollars of a year, and you feel like that team is going to take care of you in all aspects of mind, body and convenience — you might choose that team,” he added.

Some of the practice facilities are built as part of playing arenas, Fuller said, while others are in suburbs closer to where players live.

AECOM designed the practice facility for the Cleveland Cavaliers and one of the location variables considered, Fuller said, was where LeBron James lived, in order to keep the star happy. This only worked temporarily, as James later left Cleveland.

The star point guard on the Wizards, John Wall, used to live in an apartment a few blocks from the Verizon Center. But last year he signed an $80 million, five-year contract wit h the team and bought a 9,000-square-foot mansion in Potomac.

Fuller said that if Leonsis aims for a facility that, like Kettler, is open to community and youth groups as well, it will expand the owner’s possibilities.

“The reason that is popular with a lot of owners is not because they want it, it’s because that opens up new sites. Instead of two options, you might have 10 because you’re willing to compromise or share it with public,” Fuller said.

If Gray wants to include a basketball complex in a development on public land, he has a couple of options. The city is going to be studying what to do with the RFK Stadium and D.C. Armory, for instance, and the D.C. Housing Authority is looking to redevelop its headquarters at North Capitol and M streets.

Kurt Kehl, a spokesman for Leonsis, said the search for locations was in its infancy. But he said Leonsis was absolutely open to something that would be available to the community.

“Ted would like for it to be in D.C.,” Kehl said. “He’d really like to do something for D.C.”

Follow Jonathan O’Connell on Twitter: @oconnellpostbiz

Jonathan O'Connell has covered land use and development in the Washington area for more than five years.
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