The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Roger Goodell, Muriel Bowser discussed future of RFK site in December call

Mayor Muriel E. Bowser stands at Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium on Dec. 8. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)
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With the potential sale of the Washington Commanders in a state of uncertainty, the team’s stadium search appears similarly stuck in limbo. But whenever the stadium discussion resumes, a three-jurisdiction race may become a real possibility.

On Dec. 2, one month after team owner Daniel Snyder announced he was exploring the possibility of selling all or part of the team, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell told D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) that the league supported her efforts to obtain the RFK Stadium site from the federal government because he wanted D.C. to have a seat at the table in the Commanders’ efforts to build a new stadium, according to two people with direct knowledge of the call. Goodell also offered lobbying assistance from the league on Capitol Hill, the people said.

“The league and Mayor Bowser agree that Washington, D.C., should be at the table when a new site is considered,” an NFL spokesman said in a statement. “We will continue to work with the mayor’s office, the Commanders, and Congress to that end — just like we are in contact with local officials in Maryland and Virginia as they review site and stadium options.”

Bowser’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Days after the December call, Bowser met with then-Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and the office of Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) in hopes of getting a provision attached to the 2023 government spending bill that would transfer ownership of the 190-acre parcel on which RFK sits from the National Park Service to the city.

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Drew Hammill, a spokesman for Pelosi, confirmed Pelosi and Bowser had met “at the mayor’s request” and said Pelosi “encouraged continued cooperation and discussions with” Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) and Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.), the then-chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, which has jurisdiction over land transfers.

On Dec. 19, Congress released the spending proposal, and it did not include the RFK provision.

The lame-duck effort was Bowser’s boldest yet to gain control of RFK, and it circumvented Norton and D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D). For months, Norton had said she would not introduce RFK legislation in Congress until Bowser and Mendelson could agree on how to use the site and whether to try to lure the Commanders.

“[The mayor’s office] knew it was a Hail Mary,” said one person with knowledge of the city’s plans, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss an ongoing process.

Now, with a divided Congress, there are new challenges. Republicans control the House — including the Natural Resources Committee, which has jurisdiction over land transfers — and may oppose the terms of a transfer. Bowser has two options: continue carrying the city’s political football with the NFL and the Commanders or try to work with Mendelson to facilitate Norton’s introduction of legislation.

For now, D.C.’s struggles to obtain the RFK site don’t seem to be hurting the city in a competition.

Maryland’s offer from last year stands: a $400 million package to improve the area surrounding FedEx Field that explicitly forbids aiding the construction of a new stadium. Virginia has not reintroduced the stadium authority bill that failed last summer, and last month, state senators signaled opposition to the proposal of Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s (R) to spend $500,000 in 2024 on studying ways to lure the Commanders.

If Snyder does sell the team, it could stoke competition for the new stadium. The NFL and a new owner would probably make replacing aging FedEx Field a top priority, and each of the three jurisdictions could become more aggressive. In November, when Snyder announced he was considering a sale, Bowser pointed out that the second of her two longtime objections to the team returning to the RFK site — the former name and the owner — might soon be gone.

One person with knowledge of NFL stadium matters, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss an ongoing negotiation, said Goodell regularly speaks with local officials, and that person expects those conversations to continue.

“He did that in New York with the Bills deal, which turned out to be a heck of a deal,” the person said.

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In 2022, the Commanders spent $580,000 on lobbying, according an analysis by the nonprofit Open Secrets. Most of it was related to the House Oversight and Reform Committee investigation of the team’s workplace culture, but the team also paid the firm Squire Patton Boggs $110,000 to lobby lawmakers on RFK.

In June, when lead lobbyist Matthew Cutts left Boggs for the firm of Dentons, the Commanders hired Dentons, according to disclosure reports.

Cutts declined to comment.

In D.C.’s quest to gain control of RFK, 2022 seemed like an opportune year. Democrats controlled the presidency, Senate and House. In June, deputy mayor for planning and economic development John Falcicchio, one of Bowser’s top lieutenants, sent a letter to Mendelson, writing that it was critical to coalesce around legislation “while the political environment may be best suited for success.”

But months passed without change. In the November midterm elections, Democrats lost the House. Not long after, Bowser’s efforts to acquire the land without Norton and Mendelson ramped up.

Six days after her call with Goodell, Bowser appeared at a “Farewell RFK Stadium” event in Northeast Washington. In a news conference, Bowser stressed the 190-acre site was large enough for “recreation, housing, jobs, [better access] to the river and professional sports.” She reiterated that she believes D.C. taxpayers would support a stadium at RFK if it followed the Audi Field model, meaning the city would prepare the land and the team would build the stadium.

Meagan Flynn, Nicki Jhabvala and Mark Maske contributed to this report.