Get Ready for a Virginia Stadium, Everyone
By Steve Thomas
There has been quite a bit of talk recently about the possibility of a new stadium for the Redskins somewhere in the DC area. Before we get too far into that discussion, let’s take a journey in the way-back machine and take a quick look at the history of the Redskins in DC. Our beloved team moved from Boston to Washington, DC, in 1937 and began play in the old Griffin Stadium located on the site that is today the Howard University Hospital. In 1961, the Redskins moved into what was then known as “D.C. Stadium”, renamed to “Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium” in 1969, and affectionately known as “RFK Stadium”. The Redskins stayed at that location through 1996, for a total of 36 seasons, playing 278 games (not including preseason games), winning 173 and losing 102, with 3 ties, for a .622 winning percentage. Those numbers include a total of 12 playoff games with 11 victories, including 5 for 5 in home NFC Championship games. The team moved to Jack Kent Cooke Stadium in Raljon, Maryland near the Landover Mall and across the Beltway from the Capital Centre, in 1997. New owner Daniel Snyder reached an agreement with Federal Express to rename the stadium Fed Ex Field in 1999. Between 1997 and 2016, the Redskins played 164 games in 20 seasons at Fed Ex Field (not including preseason games), winning 80 and losing 83, with 1 tie, which includes a 1-2 record in home playoff games, for a .488 winning percentage. Despite the fact that Fed Ex Field has at times been a veritable “factory of sadness” for our beloved team, the Redskins are now looking for a new home to be ready by 2027. Let’s talk about how and where this might happen.
Fed Ex Field background
According to the Prince George’s County tax records, an entity called JKC Stadium, Inc., owns the Fed Ex Field property. Daniel Snyder would have acquired this entity as a part of his purchase of the team in 1999. The Redskins, who are owned by an entity controlled by Mr. Snyder called Pro-Football, Inc., are the tenant of JKC Stadium, Inc., under a lease that runs through the 2026 season. For those of you keeping score, yes, Daniel Snyder is essentially his own landlord. The natural question that may follow, then, is (1) why a lease exists at all, and (2) why Mr. Snyder couldn’t just tear up this lease any time he wants to instead of waiting until 2027. The answer is complicated, naturally, moreso because the lease is not a public document, but the two biggest reasons why this most likely will not happen is that, most importantly, the stadium’s construction was originally financed by the late Jack Kent Cooke in part through a $180M construction loan. Mr. Snyder either assumed this loan directly or refinanced it under better terms when he bought the team. The lease also likely contained certain obligations to Prince George’s County. In addition, in the years since Mr. Snyder’s purchase of the team and the stadium property, he has done other work on the property, including significant remodeling, seat removal, and work on parking and traffic flow, at least some of which was likely funded through additional construction loans rather than directly out of Mr. Snyder’s pockets. I don’t have the details of any of this additional funding, if it exists, but the point is that at least some of the stadium’s original construction funding remains unpaid, with likely more added to it, and the term of the original construction loan was almost certainly for the same 30 year term as was the lease.
Why, you may ask, would Jack Kent Cooke and then Daniel Snyder hold the team under one corporate entity and the stadium under another? This is a real estate and tax law question that’s beyond the scope of this column, but suffice to say that it comes down to reasons related to liability and construction loan terms. The construction lender(s) would have most likely required that a solid, unimpeachable income stream like rent payments to the borrowing property owner be in place for the length of the loan. So: the bottom line is that unless Mr. Snyder is inclined to either pay the remaining portion of the construction loan(s) early, or refinance the loan(s) somehow, then the Pro-Football, Inc., lease needs to run through to completion. Given all of this, it’s hardly surprising that there’s been no talk of the Redskins moving to a new home early.
The new stadium
It took Jack Kent Cooke many years and several false starts regarding a variety of different sites before he was finally able acquire the land and obtain the necessary approvals to build Fed Ex Field; however, once he did, Fed Ex Field was essentially built “on the cheap” in terms of NFL stadium construction. He did this primarily because, as stated above, Mr. Cooke financed the bulk of the costs of construction himself with only $70.5M in state funds (28%), plus local incentives, and also because stadiums built in that era simply weren’t the odes to excess that they are today. That cost is nowhere near the vicinity of the cost of a stadium project in 2017. In today’s world, the cost of a new stadium starts at approximately one billion dollars, and a stadium that has significant additional commercial retail or entertainment development going along with it could be even more, to the tune of $1.5B or, God help us, greater. As examples, the Verizon Center in downtown DC was a privately funded $260M project in 1997, and Metlife Stadium in the Meadowlands, home to the New York Giants and the New York Jets, opened in 2010 to a cost of $1.6B in private financing. If the artist’s rendering of one proposed new Redskins stadium design apparently being considered is any indication, Mr. Snyder does not intend to build on the cheap. That proposal has an actual moat, for goodness’ sake.
A sad fact of life is that construction of most NFL stadiums are financed with a large chunk of public funds, sometimes up to 100%, depending on the situation. We can discuss the wisdom of hundreds of millions of dollars of public money being spent in order to build stadiums for billionaires – we briefly talked about this on the April 23, 2017, episode of The Hog Sty – but it’s a pointless argument. Certainly in the case of the new Redskins stadium, public financing is going to happen to one degree or the other, particularly since Mr. Snyder has three separate governments to play off one another, plus perhaps even the federal government in the case of a stadium in the District of Columbia. It’s going to take one of these governments significantly more than the $70.5M in public funds that Jack Kent Cooke was given in order to be awarded the new stadium.
A new stadium, from initial discussions, financing, site acquisition, design, and planning, to ground-breaking and opening, can be a 7-8 year project even if things go smoothly. Just the construction alone of bigger, more complicated stadiums can take two years or more – AT&T Stadium in Dallas, a/k/a Jerryworld, took 26 months to build. Therefore, while there’s plenty of time yet, it isn’t too early for the Redskins to be thinking about their new home.
Given the age and sparseness of Fed Ex Field, along with the lack of high-end commercial development around Fed Ex, a remodel and extension of the current lease appears to not be on the table. Most of the recent chatter has centered on property in Virginia out near Dulles airport, but hope also remains for a new stadium to be built in the District on the RFK Stadium site, which would have to be demolished. The other remaining option, of course, is a site in Maryland, either near the National Harbor, the current Fed Ex site, or somewhere else. Let’s examine all three.
District of Columbia
As a bit more background, the RFK Stadium land is owned by the federal government, under the authority of the National Park Service, and is leased to the District of Columbia through 2038. Therefore, any deal for a new stadium on the RFK site would necessarily require the approval and consent of the federal government, along with either a new lease or an outright sale of the property. While the new Trump administration apparently does not view the name “Redskins” in the same negative light as did the Obama administration, there’s nonetheless no guarantee that the federal government wants to use that land as a stadium until the middle of the century. The Washington DC mayor recently asked the Trump administration to either deed the site to the District directly or enter into a new, 100 year lease. There is thusfar no indication of the Trump administration’s reaction to this demand.
Assuming for the sake of this discussion that the federal government consents to the use of the RFK site for a new stadium, the next hurdle is the District government itself. Various District officials have raised issues with the Redskins nickname, with no less than DC mayor Muriel Bowser claiming the name is offensive. That issue would have to be resolved one way or the other for the Redskins to be able to move back to the District.
Assuming that actually happens, the next problem is that at least some of the local residents in the vicinity of the RFK site don’t particularly want a new, much larger stadium in their backyards. My experience watching and being involved with stadium developments is that typically citizens are all for a new stadium until the proposal brings the stadium near their personal homes, at which point, opinions change. Such is likely the case for the residents around the current RFK site. Not that their voices will matter much, in reality, mind you – the most important voices are the federal government and the District government, and what option both of those entities think will ultimately result in the “highest and best use” for that land, i.e., most likely the option that will generate the most revenue.
I earlier mentioned public financing – raise your hand if you think the District of Columbia has the ability and willingness to generate several hundred million dollars of public funds to be used for stadium construction strictly from their operating budget. My hand is down – that’s quite a bit of money for any city, let alone one with a budget that’s already not in the greatest shape and has the federal government lurking as overlords. To be fair, it must be said that after years of waiting for Virginia to come through, the District did step up to fund the bulk of Nationals Park, which opened in 2008. That project cost approximately $700M, and DC’s share was $670M, with $135M paid up front in cash and the rest coming from a $535M loan. While that does show that, when properly motivated, DC can come through, it strikes me as fairly unlikely that DC leadership would want to take on yet another loan of half a billion dollars or more. The annual debt service that DC must pay on the Nationals Park loan is $38M – are they willing to pay another $40M or more per year on top of that $38M for the Redskins, too? I don’t know, but I doubt it. Also, given the apparent budgetary leanings of the Trump administration, I consider it unlikely that the federal government would want to provide much more than a lease extension.
I therefore consider a new stadium at the RFK site as a possibility, but with all of the issues involved, not a likely one.
A new stadium somewhere on the Maryland side of the DC area does not have the problem of federal government involvement as does the District, and the state doubtlessly has greater capacity for generating revenue for stadium financing than does the District. However, a Maryland stadium comes with its own issues. First, there is not very much undeveloped land on the Maryland side of the DMV area. That isn’t to say that land could not be acquired, but acquiring land that already contains commercial development drives up the price. Simply demolishing Fed Ex Field and rebuilding on that site raises the need of a new temporary home for the Redskins that would be remotely NFL-worthy, the most obvious being Maryland Stadium, home to the University of Maryland Terrapins. That stadium isn’t ideal at a maximum capacity of a little more than 58,000, but might suffice for two years with a project cost-increasing two year lease.
There is a rumor that a site at Oxen Hill Farm, near the National Harbor near the southern-most portion of the Beltway, is in the running, which has several things going for it, including Beltway access and nearby commercial development. This appears to be a decent option.
Another issue raised by a stadium in Maryland is the presence of the Baltimore Ravens. I have no basis for this other than my educated guess, but I would suspect that the Ravens would object to a new Redskins stadium that is much closer to Baltimore than Landover. There’s already an underlying tension in the marketing areas of the Redskins and the Ravens, and I doubt that the Ravens would appreciate the Redskins moving, say, somewhere up I-95 between the Beltway and the City of Baltimore. The National Harbor site would certainly be acceptable from that perspective.
Finally, construction of the Ravens home, M&T Bank Stadium, was funded in part with $203.6M in public funds, which was 90% of the total construction cost when it was built in the mid-1990s. Assuming that a suitable site could be found to which the Ravens would not object, the willingness of the state to fund another stadium is anyone’s guess. We do know that Maryland Governor Larry Hogan (a Republican) has publicly supported the Redskins nickname and has made at least one stadium pitch to Daniel Snyder, so Maryland appears to be in the game to one extent or the other.
The State of Virginia has many advantages in the fight for the new stadium that neither the District nor the State of Maryland possess. First and foremost, Redskins team president Bruce Allen has significant personal ties at the highest levels of the Virginia government. His brother, George Allen, was the Governor of Virginia from 1994-98 and a U.S. Senator from 2001-07. Bruce has been hob-nobbing with people involved with the leadership of Virginia for decades – there’s a reason that he was able to not only get the training camp deal with the City of Richmond done, but done with a brand-new training facility and annual payments by the City to the Redskins. Allen is Daniel Snyder’s point man on the stadium, and Bruce can operate within the confines of Virginia politics better than he can either in Maryland or the District. Remember, one of the primary keys to the new stadium deal is the amount of public funds that can be raised. Which one of these governments to do think is more susceptible to Bruce’s plying: the federal government, the District, Maryland, or Virginia?
Speaking of Virginia, it is noteworthy that Virginia does not currently have a major professional sports franchise of its own, and therefore neither the state nor any local Virginia government is already financing other major stadium/arena construction. The Governor of Virginia, Terry McAuliffe, is rumored to want to secure a stadium deal in Virginia before he leaves office as his legacy project. It therefore appears that Virginia may be the most open to providing a large amount of public financing. And like Maryland, Virginia will probably be able to raise funds easier than the District, at least if the Virginia legislature is so inclined.
Finally, a large amount of vacant, undeveloped land is available down the I-66 corridor in the area of Dulles airport that does not have a significant number of residential homes nearby that could complicate development, as exists near RFK Stadium. There just isn’t much land, if any, available inside the Beltway on the Virginia side that would be large enough for a stadium. That’s not to say that sufficient already-developed acreage couldn’t be acquired, but the cost would very likely be astronomical given the location. Many DC and Maryland residents hold strong objections to a new stadium being as far from the District as Dulles, particularly without existing Metro access – for example, our own Alex Zeese (who lives in DC) hates the idea, as does our own Rich Rogers, a Maryland resident. They have a legitimate point with regard to the logistical difficulties some fans will face with a location this far outside the Beltway, but an unfortunate truth is that those sort of concerns are far less important than cost of construction and the availability of public financing. Reality is that the new stadium will sell out regardless of whether folks like Alex and Rich object, and if you gave the decision makers some truth serum, they would admit that’s really all that matters to them.
After considering all of these issues, I consider a site in Virginia near Dulles airport as being the most likely eventual site, followed by the National Harbor location in Maryland, with the existing RFK site being by far the least likely. Perhaps another site that I haven’t thought about will emerge. Again, though, above all else, the single most important factor in the eventual winning proposal will be the amount of public financing that will be made available to the Redskins. Whichever government is willing and able to produce the most money will probably get the stadium. It’s not really “fair”, “good”, or, frankly, beneficial to the taxpaying public to be required to pay that kind of money, but it’s the world we live in today.
Somebody find a bookie and put me down for a bet on Virginia. I fully intend to collect my winnings someday.
 It appears as though the parking lots may be owned through another entity, also owned by Mr. Snyder, of which I don’t know the name, because the Prince George’s County tax records only show 3 accounts totaling 71.63 acres as being the stadium property owned by JKC Stadium Inc. It is widely known that the entire stadium property sits on approximately 200 acres, so it appears as though the surrounding parking lots are not included; nonetheless, the issues I raise here remain the same. It wouldn’t be uncommon to have the stadium and the parking under separate corporate entities for a variety of reasons.