Long before Ted Leonsis became a successful entrepreneur and majority owner of the Washington Wizards, Capitals, Mystics and the Verizon Center, he was the mayor of a small town in Florida.
More so than any of his other business accomplishments, Leonsis credits that experience with preparing him to become a sports team owner.
“I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the social ramifications of owning a sports team. The responsibility that comes with it is not unlike being an elected public official,” Leonsis said in a speech to the National Press Club on Wednesday.
“There is a silent majority, and you worry about their needs,” he said. “There’s a very loud grouping on either side of any issue who are quite passionate, quite articulate and activist. It’s your job to be able to filter what each side is saying, but never lose sight that it’s the masses that we have to be concerned with.”
Known for being one of the most media-savvy and accessible owners in pro sports, Leonsis communicates with fans every day through his blog and through email, and said he strives to answer every concern that comes to his attention.
In addition to building championship teams, Leonsis believes that sports team ownership also is a public trust and should be viewed as a higher calling. He wants to see his teams bring the community together, in addition to winning championships.
“Washington is really an emblematic city, not only for our country, but for the world,” Leonsis said. “It’s a vibrant and growing city.”
Leonsis identified five factors that define a city: universities, public space, iconic real estate, media properties and sports teams.
He talked about how sports intertwines all of them.
“Sports is one of the three main drivers of reputation in an educational institution,” Leonsis said. “Selectivity is number one, how difficult is it to get into the school; research dollars is second, and usually a major athletic program is number three.
“It’s no secret that the better the Georgetown men’s basketball program does, the more applications there are to attend the school. It’s like a three-hour infomercial when a team is playing on national television.”
After the death of long time Bullets/Wizards owner Abe Pollin in 2009, Leonsis purchased the team and Verizon Center, which he now calls “public space” for the city.
“The Verizon Center is now a convener. We bring in 2 [million] to 3 million people [annually],” Leonsis said. “We have to protect and enhance our public space because it’s a big part of the identity of our community.
“When you think of Manhattan, and you ask anyone to name the important pieces of real estate, a top-10 mention is Madison Square Garden. We have the Verizon Center right near the Mall, right near the Capitol, right near the White House. It’s becoming an iconic piece of real estate. It activates local commerce.”
Leonsis believes that when people think of Washington, D.C., they now think about the Capitals, the Wizards and the Mystics the same way that New Yorkers think of the Yankees, or Bostonians think of the Red Sox and the Bruins.
Leonsis declined to offer many specifics about the Wizards, because of the NBA lockout, but did express excitement about some of the recent moves made by the Caps.
“The Caps finished a very active period in free agency where we brought in lot of new players,” Leonsis said, “all in hopes of trying to perfect and build a team that the community can be really proud of and that can define its success by bringing our community closer together and hopefully competing for and one day winning a championship.
“I’m very pleased to say that we’re at that point in the franchise’s development that that’s all we can focus on and talk about. There’s no more tickets to sell, we’ve spent every dollar we can spend under the salary cap in the NHL, and there’s nothing to do other than to provide the fans a team that hopefully can do better next year. I think there’s trust between our franchise and our fans base that everyone knows that that’s what our goal is.”
Far from being removed, or adversarial toward the media, Leonsis said he feels more a part of the media, and is aware of his ability to affect people lives.
“Sports plays an unbelievably special role in people’s lives. We’re relatively small businesses, but our psychic footprint is incredibly large,” Leonsis said. “I want to bring the community together, and make lifelong memories.”