Nick Fontana has thousands of dollars riding on the Washington Capitals in the Stanley Cup playoffs. And he didn’t even make a wager.
Fontana owns Capital Q, a barbecue joint on H Street NW, just around the corner from the Verizon Center.
Last Friday, an hour before the opening game of the Washington/Tampa Bay series is set to begin, Fontana’s place, like every restaurant on the block, is crowded. So crowded that he has to occasionally stop talking to me and run to the other side of the steam table to help his two-man staff carve meats and serve sides.
By my count, 13 of the 15 people in line at his cafeteria-style eatery are wearing Caps jerseys. Those already seated and eating are similarly garbed.
Without the playoff game, these folks in the Semin, Green, Backstrom, and Ovechkin mufti would surely be wearing something else on this night. And they’d almost as surely be turning their money over to someone other than Fontana.
Even if the top-seeded Caps’ season should end in a second-round upset—and at deadline time it sure looks like it will—Fontana’s already playing with house money. Looking at the room full of folks rocking the red, Fontana, who opened up his restaurant mere weeks after the arena debuted in late 1997, knows where his brisket is sauced: “Hockey’s great for us,” he says. “The bigger the game, the better.” (Full disclosure: Fontana is a longtime friend.)
Capital Q, Fontana says, will take in “up to $1,000” a game in added receipts during the Stanley Cup playoffs.
So while he roots for the home team on a sporting level, it’s not a desire to see Bruce Boudreau lugging a trophy back to the coach’s native Toronto that fuels Fontana’s dreams of a Caps’ championship.
Nah. It’s all the extra Gs that will go into the Q’s coffers if the home team goes all the way.
“There’s four rounds in the Stanley Cup playoffs? Let’s say three home games per round,” Fontana says. “Getting an extra $1,000 a game, well, we’re not a big place, so that’s really big. The difference when the Caps go out in the first round, or they [win the Stanley Cup], that could be a $10,000 swing for us.”
Greg Algie owns Fadó, a bar on 7th Street NW, up the street from the arena. He’s also on the front line of the Capitals’ trickle down economy, and happy to be there.
Hockey fans have become a bigger part of Fadó’s clientele every year, Algie says. On opening night of the Caps’ second-round series, a bartender in Fadó’s backroom mopes that a lot more drinks would have been poured “if Buffalo was playing here” instead of Tampa Bay.
But Algie seems glad just to have the locals still skating this late in the year.
While he keeps specific dollar amounts to himself, every Caps playoff game “adds another 10 percent” to his bar’s average nightly take, Algie says.
“And a 10 percent bump is a really big deal for us,” Algie says.
The debate over a sports arena’s value to a city usually focuses on the insanely wealthy businessmen who are given unthinkable amounts of the public monies. Forbes recently reported that Nationals owner Ted Lerner, with a net worth of $3 billion, was the richest man in all of baseball. Yet just a few years ago, the D.C. government gifted the Lerner family with a stadium that was built with as much as a billion tax dollars.
Ralph Nader, through his group League of Fans, has railed for decades against the “corporate welfare” found in sports construction. In 2004, while running for president, Nader made opposition to the use of tax money to build a baseball stadium in D.C. part of his platform. He lost the election and the stadium fight.
And while a lot of folks hailed Abe Pollin as saintly for spending a lot of his own money on the building now known as Verizon Center, Nader chose to emphasize the buttload of people’s money that went into the project: A League of Fans report in 2003 estimated that $60 million of the $260 million it took to build the arena, or 23 percent of the total cost, came from public subsidies. Then, in 2007 the D.C. government gave Pollin another $50 million in tax money, allegedly to buy a new scoreboard and improve some suites in the arena (one of which was a 24-seater Pollin handed over to the city to use).
But on nights like last Friday, with Chinatown full of red raiders, it’s clear that not all the winners in the arena raising realm are billionaires. There are some Regular Guy beneficiaries, too.
Guys like Algie and Fontana, for example. And so many other small businessmen in the zip code.
Fadó opened 13 years ago, and Algie remembers when the view from his bar’s front door didn’t include oodles of retail and eating outlets and streets teeming with customers in hockey jerseys.
“I’d look down the street and see tumbleweeds,” Algie says. “There was just a parking lot where all that stuff is now. And now fans have so many more places to go, they just bounce around from bar to bar, and that changes the whole mood of the neighborhood. And the deeper the Caps go into the playoffs, the more people you see hanging out around here, waiting for their buddies at the game or just wanting to be near the action. Building the arena didn’t have everything to do with it, but it had a lot.”
Building owner Ted Leonsis says he’s aware that the arena is a “good driver of business for local merchants.”
“I would like to think they consider us a good neighbor,” he says.
The official Verizon Center fan’s guide shows the owner’s good-neighborly bent: While touting the in-house concessions, the manual also says, “We encourage patrons to visit one of the many restaurant options available in the surrounding area prior to attending an event.”
Author and lawyer Jeffrey Standen, who teaches sports law at Willamette University, has written extensively in favor of public funding of sports buildings. Standen counts the fans in the Caps jerseys patronizing Capital Q and Fadó and all other Chinatown businesses on game night as beneficiaries of whatever tax dollars went into building the Verizon Center.
“People are all for the public funding of parks or libraries or theaters,” Standen says. “I say having a professional sports team in town can be a public good, also. It’s a hard argument to make, because the economists who study this want numbers, and it’s hard to put a number on what its worth to the area when people get enjoyment out of a local team, out of rooting for that team, getting something to talk about from that team. But, I like living in an area where there are libraries, parks, theatres, and where there are sports teams. Often, building a stadium is what allows you to have a pro sports team.”
(When Standen made much the same argument in a post on his personal blog, a commenter chimed in: “Are you really comparing public parks and libraries to sports stadiums? No one pays to enter a public park or library. A football ticket cost $75.”)
But before governments dole out dollars, they should make sure they’re not jumping in with a loser. As was obvious all over Chinatown lately, fans and small businessmen reap the biggest benefits when an arena’s tenants win.
“Don’t even talk to me about the Wizards,” says Fontana. “They do nothing for me.”
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