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Leonsis: Billboards could help Wizards, Caps

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Photo - Ted Leonsis, founder of Monumental Sports & Entertainment, wants the D.C. Council to allow more digital billboards outside the Verizon Center, which he owns. (AP photo)
Ted Leonsis, founder of Monumental Sports & Entertainment, wants the D.C. Council to allow more digital billboards outside the Verizon Center, which he owns. (AP photo)
Local,DC,Liz Farmer

What do flashy billboards have to do with a championship for the Washington Wizards or the Capitals? Everything, if you ask Ted Leonsis.

Leonsis, the founder of Monumental Sports & Entertainment, which owns both teams and the Verizon Center where they play, says he's at a competitive disadvantage when it comes to running both the facility and two teams. Being allowed to have more digital signs outside the arena could make up that difference in revenue, he said.

"When a city builds the building, they charge the ownership group $3 million or $4 million a year and the teams get to keep all the revenue," Leonsis told The Washington Examiner after testifying before a D.C. Council committee Wednesday.

Leonsis is pushing a bill that would allow for more signage at the arena, which still has $125 million left on its mortgage. Leonsis said that since he bought the teams and arena in 2010, after former owner Abe Pollin died, he has paid down the outstanding debt by about $15 million. But the enterprise is losing money.

"This is a case where we have to pay the banks first for that building, and then whatever's left we can use it to improve the building and pay for the team," Leonsis continued. "And that $8-to-$10 million [cost] is a lot of money for a team that spends $50 million a year in payroll."

And although he said he considers the Washington Nationals a partner, he added that they have a much pricier, taxpayer-funded stadium.

"That's a $600 million stadium, and they pay a lot less than we do in rent," he said.

Leonsis' push comes after the business community lashed out at him in January, after Ward 7 Councilwoman Yvette Alexander submitted a bill with his proposal. The Downtown Neighborhood Association and others surrounding the arena planned to mount an opposition at a scheduled hearing that month, until the hearing was taken off Alexander's committee schedule.

Now most of those same groups lined up Wednesday to testify in support. After meeting with business and community members, Leonsis has agreed to turn off the signs at midnight, mute the sound and shrink the maximum size of the billboards.

Barbara Lang, president and CEO of the D.C. Chamber of Commerce, noted that the Verizon Center has brought in $2.4 billion in tax revenue for the city and 50,000 jobs since it opened in 1995.

"This sort of growth should be praised, and it should be rewarded," she said.

lfarmer@washingtonexaminer.com

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