WASHINGTON | Ted Leonsis received 130 e-mails from Washington Wizards fans before he had owned the team a full day. Three came from a fan concerned about the quality of the ketchup at the Verizon Center.
Yes, owning two major sports teams is going to take a lot of work.
“I hoping I’m not going to get 130 e-mails a day for both teams,” said Leonsis, who opened an e-mail address for fans and is going to try to answer them all.
The 53-year-old former AOL executive stood at a podium Thursday to announce that he has formally taken control of a major sports and entertainment empire. The NBA gave its approval Tuesday, and the papers were signed Wednesday to complete the purchase of the Wizards, the Verizon Center and other assets from the estate of the late Abe Pollin.
Leonsis already owned the NHL’s Washington Capitals and WBNA’s Washington Mystics and 44 percent of the Wizards and Verizon Center. His group paid about $310 million for the other 56 percent to create a new entity — called Monumental Sports & Entertainment — whose total value is more than $825 million.
That made Thursday a big day in the nation’s capital. The event drew dignitaries from the worlds of sports, city government and business, including 13 members of Leonsis’ extended, deep-pocketed group.
“This was a big purchase,” Leonsis said. “We needed help.”
The focus, however, was solely on the man at the top. Despite his lofty position, Leonsis is not an entourage man. He walked to the microphone with no introduction and spoke for some 52 minutes, answering a wide range of questions. The contrast with the city’s other major sports owners — the media-shy duo of Dan Snyder (Redskins) and Ted Lerner (Nationals) — couldn’t have been more striking.
“I will personally drive full season ticket holders to the games. I will mow lawns. I will wash cars,” said Leonsis, jokingly exaggerating his everyman image.
The immediate concern for both Wizards and Capitals fans is whether Leonsis can find enough time to devote his full energies to both teams as well as all of his other interests — he’s made an award-winning documentary and recently wrote a book on happiness.
“I believe I have the personal bandwidth and the experience to be able to manage all of these assets,” Leonsis said. “Yes, I do worry about it. … I’m going to stop doing some of those (other) things and put my focus on the teams. There’s only so many hours in the day.”
Leonsis has successfully remade the Capitals into a first-place, sellout-every-game team his 11 years as the hockey team’s owner, but he learned some hard lessons along the way. Those lessons will be applied to the Wizards, including a vow not to go overboard in free agency this summer despite plenty of salary cap room.
“The money’s not burning a hole in my pocket,” Leonsis said. “Maybe 10 years ago I would have been firing up the jets … but I’m not interested in just making a news splash.”
The rebuilding starts later this month with the No. 1 overall pick in the draft, which the team won in the recent NBA lottery. Leonsis can only hope that the pick — likely Kentucky’s John Wall — can do for the Wizards what 2004 No. 1 overall pick Alex Ovechkin has done for the Capitals.
“I think we can make the team great faster than we did the Washington Capitals,” Leonsis said. “But I am telling people with honesty there is no magic wand.”
Leonsis reiterated that he plans to retain general manager Ernie Grunfeld and coach Flip Saunders. He said he is now exchanging e-mails with point guard Gilbert Arenas, who has an $111 million contract but is coming off a 50-game suspension and has a felony conviction for bringing guns into the locker room.
“It’s very important that Gilbert be re-embraced as a person and as a player,” Leonsis said. “Gilbert knows the most important thing for him to do is get in shape, to be a great teammate, to be a pillar of our community and to show atonement.”
Leonsis indicated he’d like to revive the franchise’s old red-based color scheme, which would mirror a similarly popular change he made with the Capitals. But he added “there will be no name change” despite a widespread sentiment that the Wizards should go back to their old nickname, the Bullets.
“I’m shocked with all that we have to do that that’s been, like, the No. 1 question, e-mail, message board conversation,” Leonsis said.