In his vision of the region, Ted Leonsis sees Baltimore and Washington growing and merging into a single "super city" that will one day approximate the size and influence of New York, Los Angeles and Chicago.
By 2050, the Washington-based sports team owner calculates, the booming metropolis will extend more than 100 miles, from Richmond, Va., to the northern edges of the Baltimore region.
Leonsis' thinking helps explain why his Monumental Sports & Entertainment recently strayed from its Washington roots and not only put an Arena Football League team in the capital, but one in Baltimore, too.
"I've always felt that Baltimore and Washington were one community," he says. "I fly BWI as often as I fly Dulles. I probably have gone to as many Ravens games as I have Redskins games."
Baltmore has grown increasingly important in the world of Leonsis, 60. The former America Online mogul formed a regional economic alliance last year of CEOs from Richmond to Baltimore. His two new AFL teams — the Baltimore Brigade and Washington Valor — begin play on April 7.
Monumental is best known for owning the NBA's Washington Wizards, NHL's Washington Capitals and Washington's Verizon Center. When the firm announced nearly a year ago that it was acquiring a Washington entry in a struggling indoor league seeking expansion franchises and a new look, Leonsis said, Baltimore was never far from his thinking.
"People think that we're crazy not only to buy one, but to buy two teams," Leonsis said. "I believe Baltimore is ascendant. There's an arena" — Royal Farms — "that needs stimulation and can create jobs and you can bring people into downtown."
Monumental announced the Baltimore team in November, then in January revealed the club's name, Fort McHenry-shaped logo and blue and silver colors.
The Brigade will be a dance partner of sorts for the Valor, which will play at the much larger Verizon Center in downtown D.C. Regional bragging rights tend to excite fans. The Brigade and Valor will be sibling rivals, owned by the same company.
"There is a brotherly love rivalry that exists between the two towns," said Zach Leonsis, Ted's 28-year-old son, who oversees Monumental's live-streaming sports network and is involved in corporate strategy. "So when we launched the team in Washington it seemed like, 'Hey, there could be a great opportunity.' "
Monumental, which also owns the WNBA's Washington Mystics, has always considered Baltimore part of its territory, albeit a less visible segment than Washington, its immediate suburbs in Maryland and Northern Virginia.
To Monumental, ignoring Baltimore would be like the New York Yankees ignoring northern New Jersey or Connecticut.
In 2014, Ted Leonsis worked with Kevin Plank, CEO of Baltimore-based Under Armour, and other area business leaders in an unsuccessful attempt to bring the 2024 Summer Olympics to the National Capital Region. Last year, he helped launch the Greater Washington Partnership to get executives thinking more regionally in Maryland, Virginia and Washington.
"There's always been sort of a draw on our part to connect with the Baltimore community even though we are from Washington," Zach Leonsis said. "The population in the region from Richmond to Baltimore is seven and a half million people. Everyone thinks that population could double. Sometimes I don't think people give [the region] the credit we deserve."
Howard County and other suburbs of Baltimore and Washington are among the areas seeing steady growth.
In October, Monumental announced an equity partnership in the regional cable network CSN Mid-Atlantic, part of NBC Sports Group, which broadcasts Capitals and Wizards games in Washington and Baltimore.
Because Baltimore doesn't have its own NHL or NBA teams, the Washington franchises have followers here, in the way that the Orioles were for decades Washington's local baseball team.
Since Jan 1, the Capitals have averaged a Baltimore-market rating of 1.0, according to the network. That translates to about 11,000 households, on average. The Wizards average about a 0.7 rating, or 7,700 viewers.
The Washington ratings for the Capitals are 1.57, or 36,110 households. For the Wizards, they're 1.12, or 25,760.
The Capitals' Baltimore ratings surged in last year's playoffs to 3.1, or 34,100 households. Washington got a 4.1, or 94,300.
As the Brigade continues to sign players, it faces the formidable challenge of trying to turn a collection of football castoffs into a team that feels like Baltimore's own.
"We know that frankly we're going to have to earn our place in the city along with the Orioles and Ravens," Zach Leonsis said.
Monumental says it plans to reach out to schools, camps and charities. It says the food served at the Baltimore and Washington arenas will reflect each city's tastes, and the teams will have unique identities. The team's broadcaster on the Monumental Sports Network has not yet been announced, but the company says he will be familiar to Baltimore sports fans.
While the Brigade plans a media campaign, the elder Leonsis — notable among owners as a blogger, tweeter and fan — is himself adept at public relations. The son of a Greek waiter, he was raised in Brooklyn and regularly attended New York Jets football games with his dad. He made millions when his new-media firm was sold to America Online in the 1990s.
Leonsis is popular in Washington relative to Washington Redskins' owner Daniel Snyder, who is a frequent target of fan and media criticism, and Washington Nationals' owner Theodore Lerner, who rarely gives interviews.
But neither the Wizards nor Capitals have made it past the second round of the playoffs under his ownership. When the Wizards began this season 2-8, fans questioned the selection of the new coach, Scott Brooks, and whether Leonsis had stuck for too long with Ernie Grunfeld, now in his 14th year as team president.
But the Wizards went on a 17-game home winning streak and turned their season around.
"The knives were out," Leonsis said last week. "I said that I believed in patience and loyalty and the plan."
He's known in Washington for mingling with spectators in the seating bowl and concourses.
Auburn Bell, who teaches marketing at Loyola University Maryland, says having a visible, deep-pocketed owner with his own arena and live-streaming network "strengthens the support, certainly" of the fledgling Baltimore team.
But Bell said the arena football concept "is a tough sell in a city that has a relatively successful baseball team and loyal fan following."
The Orioles' season opens four days before the Brigade's. Bell said the Brigade will also face the challenge of "fans that have more going on with their own kids' sports activities" during the busy spring.
Analysts give Royal Farms Arena mixed reviews. Some say the 55-year-old arena will be a loud and intimidating venue for opposing players. Bell calls it "a dated and less than friendly space for fans."
"I'm not sure a state-of-the-art facility would guarantee success," he said. "But certainly playing in a place like the Royal Farms Arena will not help the overall effort."
The team is scheduled to play 14 games, mostly at night, at the arena, which seats about 11,500 for sporting events. The home opener is set for May 7.
The Baltimore Blast indoor soccer team also plays at Royal Farms. Its season lasts from November to March. The club is averaging 6,598 in attendance.
The Arena Football League lost teams last year from Los Angeles, Arizona, Orlando, Fla., Jacksonville, Fla., and Portland, Ore. Some analysts say competition from baseball was partly to blame.
In Los Angeles, which supports two baseball teams, the KISS saw attendance drop steadily from season to season, ending at about 7,000 last year. But the Arizona Rattlers, who compete in Phoenix with the National League's Arizona Diamondbacks, consistently attracted more than 10,000 fans, and are now in the Indoor Football League.
The Arena Football League is down to five teams — Baltimore, Washington, Philadelphia, Cleveland and Tampa Bay — but hopes to expand soon.
"To me the worst that can happen is only 3,000 people come to a game the first year," Ted Leonsis said. "And bloggers and some media people say, 'They're off to a slow start.' And we go, 'OK, I can live with that. So let's keep working it and marketing it and being involved in the community.' It's a great sports town."
As Monumental pursues Baltimore connections, its executives have met with Under Armour about a sponsorship or partnership, according to multiple sources. An Under Armour spokeswoman said the company is not an official Arena League sponsor or outfitter but that some league teams purchase uniforms through its team sales division.
Under Armour, Ted Leonsis said, "is a very, very entrepreneurial company. My expectation is at some point somewhere we'll find something big and innovative to work on together."
To heighten the games' appeal for millennials, Monumental said it is interested in gadgets that measure athletes' fitness and performance in real time. Under Armour does increasing work in this area.
Monumental said it imagines a day when there are cameras in helmets, and devices to measure players' speed and heart rate in real time.
On broadcasts, Zach Leonsis said, fans might see "special animation," akin to video game effects.
"If a guy's really hot, maybe there's a flame. If he dropped a lot of passes maybe there's an ice cube."
Monumental is gambling that its live-streaming service — called an "over the top" network — will appeal to the younger audience it covets and to others who have "unplugged" from traditional cable television.
The streaming service offers access to games of the Brigade, Valor, the minor league hockey Hershey Bears and other teams. Subscriptions cost $12.99 for monthly plans, or $8.99 per month for an annual plan.
"Going over the top is relatively inexpensive," said John Mansell, a sports and media consultant based in Northern Virginia. "But it's kind of what you call secondary or minor-league programming."
Monumental says the broadcasts will look different from NFL games.
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