Could the Washington Commanders Play in DC Again? There Are Some Legal Hurdles.

Headshot - John Weaver
John Weaver
Director, Corporate Department and Chair of the Real Estate Practice Group
Published: McLane Middleton
November 17, 2022

With rumors of Daniel Synder’s potential sale of the Washington Commanders running through the NFL, much of the gossip centers around possible buyers, including Jeff Bezos, two former suitors for the Denver Broncos, Josh Harris and Matt Ishbia, and Fenway Sports Group, led by Red Sox principal owner John Henry and chairman Tom Werner. However, any new owner will have to deal with the team’s stadium, FedEx Field in Landover, Maryland, very shortly after any acquisition, as the lease there expires in 2026. This may open a path for the Commanders to return to Washington, D.C. each Sunday during the NFL season.

Between 1961 and 1996, the Commanders played their home games in Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium in the District of Columbia; the team began playing at FedEx Field in 1997. RFK was very popular among fans and players. According to Washington football historian Mike Richman, “The stands shook with fans and it felt like sometimes there was a twelfth man on the field.” Joe Theismann, who won a Super Bowl as the team’s quarterback in 1983, has said “RFK Stadium was such a special place. It had a holy feel to it.” That being said, there is no way for the Commanders to make it home again: Events DC, a municipal entity that operates RFK, is scheduled to demolish the stadium as early as 2023.

But that doesn’t mean Commanders fans, many of whom would love for the team to return to the District, have to give up the dream of the Washington team playing in Washington. However, a new owner would have to address several legal issues before doing so, including:

FedEx Field Lease: Although it’s been reported that the Commanders’ lease to occupy FedEx Field expires in 2026, it’s possible the lease contains language that complicates that. Are there renewal terms that could give the team either more time there or leverage to negotiate a different renewal? Is there a notice provision that must be followed to properly exercise either renewal or termination? Are there other termination requirements – payment, restoration obligations, etc. – that any new owner would need to comply with before successful termination? A new ownership group would want to read that lease carefully to understand what is already in place.

Virginia Property: Earlier this year, the Commanders purchased 200 acres of land in Prince William County, Virginia for $100 million. Initial reports from the team indicated that was the team’s preferred relocation site. In addition to the stadium, the site could also support the team’s practice facility, an amphitheater with seating for up to 20,000 people, residences, high end retail shops, and bars and restaurants; some of that development is similar to Patriots Place, the lucrative retail center adjacent to Gillette Stadium, owned by Patriots owner, Bob Kraft. However, events in Richmond may have change that. Although the Virginia legislature was considering a bill that would have created the Virginia Football Stadium Authority, a political subdivision authorized to finance the construction of a stadium through the issuance of bonds, Virginia legislators have since shelved that idea, possibly making the Prince William location less appealing. Any new owner interested in returning to DC will need to evaluate: (i) the viability of the Virginia Football Stadium Authority as both an entity and partner, (ii) public funding from the county and state, and (iii) existing contracts in place for the Prince William property, which may include letters of intent with developers, option agreements to purchase other surrounding property, and joint venture or informal (but possibly still binding) agreements with local and state agencies.

Washington, DC Lease. Although the RFK property is operated by Events DC, the property is actually owned by the National Park Service; Events DC leases the property pursuant to a lease that is scheduled to expire in 2038. So new ownership would have to not only negotiate a lease with Events DC to occupy the RFK property, it might also need to aid in the negotiation of a new long-term lease between NPS and the city. It might also be possible for the ownership group to negotiate a three-party agreement pursuant to which Events DC and NPS terminate their existing lease in favor of a lease directly between the Commanders and NPS, but there are reasons why that may not be possible (such as deed restrictions in NPS’s deed) or desirable (such as the city’s desire to control the property as a municipal resource) for all the parties.

Stadium Approval. Because RFK is scheduled for demolition, new ownership will need to navigate the land use process that any new construction must undergo before it can begin. That process could include applications to the District Zoning Commission, the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission, and the National Capital Planning Commission.