If you e-mailed Ted Leonsis through his very public Caps or Wizards e-mail addresses over the last 12 years, the one thing you could always expect was a response.
It might not be a long response; I’ve seen plenty of two-sentence Leonsis e-mails, many of which included strange abbreviations and acronyms.
It might not be a jocular response; the Caps and Wizards owner was never shy about mixing it up with the fans who sent him electronic screeds about his teams.
And it might not be an expected response, either. My friend Garrett once wrote an e-mail to Leonsis, saying he had heard that Bruce Boudreau was an enthusiastic golfer, and offering him a round at one of D.C.’s prestigious courses. The next day, Garrett received an e-mail directly from Boudreau, listing the coach’s availability and concluding “look forward to meeting up with you.” Hard to pull that one off without an owner who’s enthusiastic about e-mail.
Whatever you thought about Leonsis’s e-mail habit, there’s no denying it offered fans an easy way through the front-door of the front office. For more than a decade, the owner read and responded to every fan message — about 250,000 in all, he estimated this week. He spent an hour or two on this project every day, and often displayed the sort of honesty and passion you wouldn’t expect an NBA or NHL owner to share with fans.
Those days, it seems, are over. Struck by what he described as the decreasing usefulness of his e-mail exchanges, and by more and more e-mails from out-of-market folks who aren’t fans or customers of his teams, Leonsis announced on Monday that he will “unplug” both his Caps and Wizards e-mail accounts as of Aug. 1.
“I’m not learning anything any more,” Leonsis told me Monday afternoon, not long after he had gone through that day’s batch of fan e-mails. “I just found myself spending an hour or two hours every day, and it wasn’t helpful any more. I’m finding that meeting with people one-on-one, being on message boards, reading comments on [The Post’s Web site] — it’s just a better, more efficient way. And to be honest, e-mail has changed. It just has changed dramatically from the way you communicate to the way you sell.”
I assumed Leonsis was checking out because the tone of his e-mails had gotten less civil, but he said the reverse was actually true. When he first started responding to fans, the Caps were a less successful team, and fans unleashed “pent-up frustration” through e-mail, which helped the owner learn about his base.
But now he gets e-mails from a guy in Vancouver who wants the Caps to trade for Roberto Luongo, or notes from a mother in Nashville whose daughter needs help with a fundraiser, or queries about what he thinks about the political situation in Cyprus.
The actual nuts-and-bolts feedback about his teams, he said, is more likely to come from season-ticket holder meetings, or Facebook messages, or Twitter, a forum that might replace some of his e-mail exchanges.
“I have lots of other ways to get input and interaction; this one just ran its course,” Leonsis said. “I just feel that e-mail has lost its initial reason for being. It used to be a one-on-one way to communicate. Now it’s more about spam and push marketing and anonymous communications.
“For me, that hour, hour-and-a-half of my day, I can use that more productively for people that are more connected to me in different ways.”
I asked why he couldn’t just get someone to screen his e-mails, and he said such a plan “would be inauthentic.” But fans and customers who want to give actual feedback — about ketchup dispensers or enigmatic wingers or self-appointed NBA captains — will still be able to find him.
“I am accessible and will continue to be so,” he wrote on his blog Monday afternoon. “I am sure our paths will cross again, just via different communications outlets. Times are changing.”