Ted Leonsis is close to expanding his Washington sports empire by adding an Arena Football League team that would play at Verizon Center beginning in the spring of 2017, according to a top official at his ownership group.
“We’re in serious negotiations and we’re excited about the opportunity,” said Randall Boe, executive vice president and general counsel for Monumental Sports & Entertainment. Boe said the organization hoped to finalize a deal in time to begin play next season.
Boe said Monumental Sports, which owns the Wizards, Capitals and Mystics, would make a good fit for the league, which is looking for experienced sports owners.
“They’re very interested in having dedicated ownership groups like us who know how to manage teams and who know how to manage the business,” Boe said.
Arena League commissioner Scott Butera confirmed the league was negotiating with Monumental Sports about a future Washington team, praising both the Leonsis ownership group and the Washington market.
“We love the market, and it fits our strategic plan,” Butera said. “It’s a great football town, if you look at the support the Redskins have had over the years, and the other teams in the area. The population density, the media attention, the fact that we’re looking for more presence on the East Coast: it’s a nice strategic fit for us geographically. More importantly, we really like the Monumental group. We think they have a tremendous organization, and that’s really where it starts, in getting the right people and building around that.”
A Washington team would be the league’s only current outpost between Philadelphia and Florida. Butera declined to discuss specifics about where or when such a team would begin play, but said a Leonsis-owned franchise in Washington “would be a tremendous asset,” and that the league is “excited about a potential opportunity with that group.”
Played with eight players per side on a 50-yard field (with eight-yard end zones), Arena Football games tend to be faster and higher-scoring than those in the NFL. Punting is not allowed and the field is enclosed by padded walls. Redskins Coach Jay Gruden is a former AFL MVP and four-time champion who later got his coaching start in the league.
This season, the league’s eight teams teams will play 16 regular-season games over 18 weeks, plus three rounds of playoffs. The league had 12 teams last season and has never been smaller, but Butera, a Wall Street veteran, said he is hoping to add teams and increase attendance from the current average of 10,000 to 12,000 per game through better marketing and television deals with ESPN, ESPN2 and CBS Sports.
A few years ago D.C. briefly hosted an arena team from the American Indoor Football Association, a less prominent league. The D.C. Armor debuted in 2009, playing home games at the D.C. Armory with a logo featuring a pair of swords and a knight’s helmet. The team posted a 4-10 record, according to Wikipedia, and shut down afterwards.
Erik A. Moses, managing director of sports and entertainment for Events DC, which manages sports facilities for the city, said the Armor only attracted 1,000 to 2,000 fans per game but provided a way for families who couldn’t make it to FedEx Field for Redskins games to see football.
“It was good family entertainment,” he said. “A majority of the fans were families. The players would always come out and sign things before and after games. The ticket prices were really affordable.”
Moses said he was optimistic that a higher-echelon team owned by Monumental could draw many more fans than the Armor had.
“When you think of the innovation that Ted Leonsis could bring to it, I could certainly see it being successful,” Moses said.
Boe said he had explored the possibility of playing games in the 5,000-seat Wizards practice facility and entertainment venue that the city plans on the St. Elizabeths east campus in Southeast D.C., but that the current design of that project couldn’t accommodate football, partly because of its lower ceiling heights.
D.C. and Monumental are in ongoing negotiations over how that facility will be designed and built, but are working toward a 2018 opening. It will also serve as the home floor for the Mystics and could do the same for an NBA D League franchise in the future.