Ever since Ted Leonsis bought the Wizards, he’s enjoyed a bit of a honeymoon period from most Wizards fans (although the same cannot be said of Caps fans). Much of the team’s poor play during his brief ownership can be attributed to decisions made before he bought the team. The new uniforms were a welcome change, and so far he’s done a good job of being honest, open and accessible in his dealings with fans and the media. All in all he seems like a good guy.
That’s why it’s so disheartening that Leonsis may be among the group of hard-liner owners pushing for major concessions by the players — a stand which could jeopardize the entire season. While owners are not allowed to speak publicly on the labor negotiations (a smart move by David Stern, Donald Sterling is the only person on the planet who could make LeBron James seem sympathetic by comparison), Leonsis did say (and was subsequently fined $100,000 by the league) last year that he expects the NBA would soon have a hard salary cap like the NHL. When he bought the team earlier in the year, he said “I’m surprised because now I see all of the NBA financials. And I’d honestly have to say at this point in time that the NHL is stronger than the NBA, clearly because it has a CBA in place that protect owners from taking stupid pills ...There is a hard cap in the NHL...And there’s a lot of basketball teams who are losing a lot of money.”
His public comments aside, there has been no proof that Leonsis has fallen in with the hard-line crowd (Robert Sarver of the Suns, Dan Gilbert of the Cavs) of NBA owners during the labor negotiations. Those owners are pushing for a hard cap and a much smaller share of revenues going to players, and would be okay sacrificing part or even all of the season in order to protect them from, in Leonsis’ own words, “taking their stupid pills.”
What we do know is that Leonsis voluntarily bought a team in a league that by his own admission has weak financials. He’s said that the NBA needs an NHL-style salary cap (setting a historical precedent as the first and only time anyone has ever said about anything that they wished it was more like the NHL) in order to survive. While Leonsis may be a savvy businessman and marketer, buying in to a league and then holding its fans hostage because you don’t like the rules of the game doesn’t engender much sympathy from anyone.
Leonsis should focus on making the Wizards more profitable. They own their own well-regarded arena, and are in the ninth-largest media market in the country. Unlike the Nationals or the Redskins, they don’t have a competitor up I-95 in Baltimore (Baltimore by the way is the 26th-largest market and on its own bigger than six other NBA teams’ home markets) and should take advantage of that fact. There are many teams in small markets who legitimately struggle and would be helped by revenue sharing — a solution that the owners must negotiate among themselves. The Wizards are not one of those teams, though. If they can’t turn a profit under the current system the fault is with the team management, not the system.
This weekend’s negotiations will be critical to have any chance to save the full season. As a basketball fan I can only hope that Ted chooses to do what he always said he would do as owner: Listen to the fans and treat them with the respect and value that they deserve.