The first basketball team mentioned at Wednesday’s news conference for the $55 million sports and entertainment complex set to open in 2018 was not the Washington Wizards, who finally secured a location for their long-desired practice facility. It was the Washington Mystics.
“I want to thank all of the council members who will work with us to make sure that we get to the finish line and start the home of the Washington Mystics,” D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser declared to a roar from the crowd atop Gateway Pavilion on the grounds of St. Elizabeths Hospital.
While the Wizards will practice at the Southeast D.C. site and continue to play their home games at Verizon Center when the facility is completed, the WNBA’s Mystics will relocate their entire operation to St. Elizabeths. In addition to practicing at the complex, they will play their home games at the site’s 5,000-seat arena after calling Verizon Center home since their inaugural season in 1998.
Wizards and Mystics owner Ted Leonsis explained the move from Verizon Center to a cozier locale is practical. The Mystics are often among the WNBA’s leaders in attendance and have finished first several seasons, but Leonsis emphasized the totals are misleading because sponsors write checks for blocks of seats and entire suites count towards attendance figures even if they remain empty.
The result usually is a muted atmosphere swallowed by the arena’s emptiness. The 5,000-seat capacity, Leonsis said, is ideal for the team. He explained he discussed the proposal with Mystics President Sheila Johnson, Coach-General Manager Mike Thibault, league officials, and players. All parties were on board.
“They also believed we were paying the women’s basketball team their due,” Leonsis said. “They weren’t going to share a locker room. Like the Mystics locker room today is shared when a touring artist comes, that’s where they go. This would be their locker room. We can have different kind of training materials that are more apt for women basketball players. So for them to have their own arena, their own locker rooms, their own training facility, it makes them feel special. They’re not sharing.
“So after we explained all of that to them, it was ‘We’ll be a best-in-class WNBA facility.’ Nobody else has their own arena and own training. That will help us when we want to bring in free agents and players want to stay. I think it’s equal that the Wizards will have something great on their own and the mystics will have something great on their own.”
The arena, which is expected to also house the Wizards’ future D-League franchise, will be located a short walk from the Congress Heights Metro stop and parking lots will be constructed. Leonsis envisions the surrounding area developing on a 10-year trajectory similar to Chinatown’s evolution around Verizon Center, which opened in 1997, and the ongoing development in the neighborhood surrounding Nationals Park, which opened in 2008.
“I’m hoping it is a decade long. I drove by Nats Park here and they moved into that building six years ago and it’s still not fully developed,” Leonsis said. “It’s going to take 10 years for Nats Park and all that community and restaurants and everything to be fully developed. That’s what it took at Verizon Center. The first three years at Verizon Center, I was a season-ticket holder. We’d come and we’d go, ‘Oh my gosh, is this going to work?’ You come to the arena and you go. There’s no place to eat, there’s nothing. Now, it’s the cultural entertainment hub of the city.
“And Nats Park, when you went to the first game on opening night, there was nothing there. And every year it keeps creating jobs and creating taxes and what I’m very committed to now is trying to envision this part of the city becoming part of the mainstream.”