By Justin Rude
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 1, 2006
He may be giving up some of his daily duties at AOL, but Ted Leonsis still has plenty on his plate. He's the majority owner of the Washington Capitals, a team rebuilding after a pre-lockout talent purge. He has a stake in the Mystics and the Wizards. And he's dabbling in moviemaking with the production of "The Rape of Nanking," a documentary inspired by Iris Chang's book.
Before the Caps hit the ice Thursday in New York and Saturday at home, Leonsis, 50, chatted from his Dulles office about the Capitals, blogs, building a team and how running a sports franchise is sort of like managing a start-up -- it's all about getting young talent and teaching them to do things your way.
With the changes to AOL, the return of the NHL last season and your first foray into filmmaking, this has been a pretty busy year for you. Where have you found the energy?
Launches and reinventions are my favorite part of business. At heart, I'm still an entrepreneur, and the thrill of the game for me is in having an idea, creating and executing it. It's usually not in the management and maintenance of it. So, filmmaking was very exciting for me. It was a whole new feel and exercises the creative part of my being. Sports has been about being very competitive. We had a good team that won division titles but never won a Stanley Cup. My instincts were that the team couldn't win. I want to win. The best way to craft a team was to go young and handle it like a start-up. So that's what I'm reenergized about.
As an owner, do you find it hard to balance being a businessman with being a fan?
This is not a business. This is a passion. I'll get e-mails from fans, and I'll go back and forth with them for seven or eight e-mail exchanges. An AOL customer will send me an e-mail, and I will send it to our member services rep to fix [the] problem. I think in a nutshell, I'm a fan first and foremost. With sports teams, you make your money when you sell it, after you [have] owned it for 30 or 40 years, and that's my intention. I bought it in my forties, and I want to own it till I die.
Matt Pettinger had a breakthrough season last year. Are there any players whom you expect to have that kind of surprising performance this season?
Alexander Semin is going to be an impact player. He was a first-round pick four years ago, played for us for a year and then played in Russia for two years. People are going to be shocked, I think, at how good an offensive player he is.
You can sense at practice this year that the team is going to be better. They are building towards something. I want us to make the playoffs and be there for a long time.
It seems like some of the offseason contracts and salary arbitration awards have been pretty high. Are you concerned that there is going to be a return to the free-spending pre-lockout days?
If you make a big offer long-term to the wrong player, you are dead. I think you will see more teams walking away from arbitrations now. We have hired a [salary] capologist. We were one of the first teams to bring one in. He was a season-ticket holder and a Harvard lawyer. He maps out all of our contracts, how long they are, what their productivity is and the ranges we should pay for that.
It's not just about dumb money. Anyone can write a check. It's about all of the buttons that you can press in a human to get them to buy into a belief system. And if you can't, then they weren't the right people. That doesn't mean we are going to be cheap, but I have had some instances in the past where a player said they loved everything about what we were doing and then they took $25,000 more a year to go play someplace else.
Do you think the new practice complex in Ballston will add to the fan experience?
I thought it was very important to us to try and connect our players more with the community. Most of our customer base comes from Bethesda, Washington and Northern Virginia. So by moving the facility to Northern Virginia [from Odenton], now those 30 players are all living where our fans are. And that's good. They will see them in the community, they will see them eating out at restaurants, see them at movie theaters and see them shopping at the mall.
The team has been quick to embrace new media formats, such as podcasts and blogs. What advantages do you see in them?
Three things: One, if you are writing a blog, and you are religious about it, and you are updating every day or every week, you are obviously a great fan, and we need to reward great fans. Two, the blogosphere is important because bloggers communicate with one another, and they show up very high in search engines. Third, the traditional media are having to cut expenses. Some of the big-city newspapers, thankfully not ours, aren't even allowing reporters to travel with the teams.
Are there any blogs you recommend?
Is there a particular ownership style you follow?
The people that I admire are people who don't meddle in the actual team. I meddled one time. I was very enthusiastic about bringing [Jaromir] Jagr in. When it didn't work out for us, I was accountable. It was like the 3,000 people who showed up at the airport to greet him all sent me e-mails saying, "I knew this wasn't a good idea." That really signaled to me that you have to let the professionals do their job. And I have never gotten and will never get involved in a player decision again.
Are the Caps going to switch to a new uniform in the near future?
I was hopeful we would go to a new uniform this year, but that's been put off. I do believe that the hockey look and feel needs to change. The league is about speed, and it has a high-tech feel, but the jerseys are old school.
I'm in the hopes-and-dreams business. . . . I want our fans that buy in now to feel like this is AOL or Google in the early days. We are like a tiny young company that no one pays attention to and is always being dismissed, but [the skeptics] are going to wake up one day, and we are going to be holding the Cup.
The Capitals open their season Thursday at 7:30 p.m. against the Rangers in New York. Their first home game is Saturday at 7 p.m. against the Carolina Hurricanes. For tickets and a complete schedule, call 202-266-2277 or go tohttp://www.washingtoncaps.com.