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A wake was held downtown last week for the fight against publicly subsidized sports stadiums. The ceremony was disguised as the unveiling of the Washington Kastles, a professional team tennis franchise.
Mayor Adrian M. Fenty announced that the Kastles will play at a tennis center built on the old D.C. Convention Center grounds, which are owned by the District. The city will also be kicking in $200,000 to “defray the cost of preparing the site” for a $1.1 million stadium.
The team’s inaugural season begins in July.
The spelling of the new squad’s name is funny and has no obvious connection to the host city. But that same odd spelling can be found on Kastle Keys, the state-of-the-art electronic keys used to open doors in modern office buildings. That’s the main product of Kastle Systems, an international security firm. That company was purchased last year by Mark Ein, who also happens to own D.C.’s new tennis team.
The logo for Ein’s sports franchise incorporates the logo of Ein’s security company.
The chances that the new team will succeed here are hardly slam-dunk. All you need to know about the market penetration of this gimmicky version of the court sport is that World Team Tennis, the confederation that sanctions the Kastles, has been around since the early 1970s and yet still has a franchise in…Schenectady. (D.C. fans have been told that Serena Williams, the only known quantity on the Kastles roster, is “expected” to play in as many as four of the squad’s matches.)
But even if only a few taxpayers are entertained and tax revenues aren’t enhanced, Ein’s security business should fare pretty well, what with its logo hanging in such a prominent downtown location for at least one summer.
Ein is by all accounts a charitable guy, involved in several do-gooder organizations around here over the years. But he’s hardly a charity case himself. Ein is, to quote Jett Rink in Giant, a rich ’un. Ein earns his keep controlling billions of dollars in venture capital in various funds, the biggest of which is called Venturehouse Holdings. His
own home is probably big enough to host the crowds his tennis venture will draw: In 2002, Ein bought Katharine Graham’s old estate in Georgetown, featuring a 10,285-square foot house, which had been listed at $8.35 million.
But it’s tough to blame Ein for choosing to use the people’s land instead of his own.
Fenty was among the first and loudest critics of former Mayor Anthony A. Williams’ support for public financing of a big-league baseball stadium. In a 2004 interview, Fenty told me that he didn’t think the mayor should let the city spend any money for Major League Baseball while the gymnasium at Coolidge Senior High School, the best basketball gym in the D.C. Public Schools, didn’t even have air conditioning.
But that was before the fight against Nationals stadium was lost, with an estimated cost approaching $1 billion, and before Fenty was mayor. He’s since promised D.C. United fans that he’ll chip in city money for a dedicated stadium, and he signed a bill giving Abe Pollin $50 million in city funds to spruce up the Verizon Center.
Coolidge’s gym still doesn’t have air conditioning, of course, but that wasn’t brought up by Fenty or anybody else at the Kastles press conference. Likewise, nobody mentioned that the team tennis program in the D.C. Interscholastic Athletic Association, the public-schools athletic league, is a total wreck and could use some public money and support from the mayor.
The Kastles stadium is being billed as only a temporary home for the team for up to two seasons, while other permanent uses for the downtown land are plotted. (Jessica Jacobs, spokesperson for the Kastles, says the team’s next stadium is at a site “to be determined.” Jacobs declined to discuss the Kastles’ arrangement with the city for this season.)
So the giveaway here isn’t on a par with what the Lerner family or Pollin have gotten. But the utter lack of debate and absence of any hint of skepticism from public officials—or anybody else—that major city resources are being expended so that a really rich guy can hawk his security business show that the battle Fenty once waged is indeed lost. (Imagine if the Lerners had changed their team’s name to the Washington Developers and used an image of big office building or a crane as the logo. Unless National Park Service regulations are amended, no team is allowed to play at the city’s existing publicly funded tennis arena, Rock Creek Tennis Stadium at Carter Barron.)
Long live the publicly funded stadium!
Fenty’s now on the same side as Jack Evans, a devout supporter of tax-money giveaways, who used the Kastles press conference to push his campaign to bring the Redskins back to the city. Fenty’s former fellow foot soldiers in D.C.’s anti-stadium battle have, like the mayor, also waved the white flag on sports subsidies.
Ralph Nader, for one. Sure, history will view Nader as the guy who triggered the collapse of the United States of America and the free world just by running for president in 2000. But, if you can get past that little blip, it’s easy to admire Nader for the war he waged for so long against publicly funded stadiums, including those in this town.
Nader started a group called League of Fans in 2001 that aimed to increase public awareness of the stadium scourge. The group’s mission statement:
“Public money should not be used to further the profits of sports corporations. There is no justification for cities and states to subsidize professional sports franchises with taxpayer (or otherwise public) dollars to build new stadiums or arenas, nor to provide them with other forms of corporate welfare. It is not a public purpose. Major pro sports teams are private, profit-seeking companies with very wealthy owners working within monopoly leagues and should have no trouble surviving the tests of a free market.”
Nader and his group helped defeat ballot initiatives that would benefit rich sports owners in Connecticut, St. Louis, Kansas City, and San Francisco. He took the issue so seriously that he spent the last day of his 2004 presidential campaign at the Capitol View library on Central Avenue SE in Ward 7. There, he tried calling attention to the “run-down” condition of the public facility at a time when Williams was plotting to build what Nader called a “goddamn stadium.”
“The enormity of this subordination of life’s necessities to billion-dollar sports-and-entertainment complexes can’t be exaggerated,” Nader told me at the time. In the same conversation, he also issued a guarantee that the projected Nationals Stadium “won’t happen.”
Alas, it did happen. And as publicly funded sporting ventures in Dallas, Oklahoma, and New York have gotten the go-ahead from elected officials, the issue has become almost a nonissue. Even for Nader: He is again running for president in 2008, but public money for stadiums isn’t part of his platform.
As for League of Fans?
“I think that’s over,” says a receptionist at the Center for Study of Responsive Law, Nader’s headquarters and the former home of League of Fans, when asked about its status.
It sure seems over. There hasn’t been any posts on the League of Fans’ Web site since August 2007. Shawn McCarthy, the group’s longtime director, left Nader’s organization last year and was not replaced. Nader didn’t return any of several messages left at the Center for Responsive Law asking about current state of the group.
Adam Eidinger, perhaps the highest-profile foe of D.C.’s stadium deal, has also moved on. Eidinger helped get the anti-stadium fight off on a feisty note by brawling with local public officials and 76-year-old emcee Charlie Brotman at Union Station during the 2004 press conference announcing baseball’s return to Washington.
He admits being depressed about having his arrest end up being all for naught and to being unenthused by the opening of Nationals Stadium.
“I won’t go there,” Eidinger says. “It’s difficult for me to see the stadium and get excited. I see a big party being paid for out of taxpayers’ expense. But what can I do?”