Washington Capitals Owner Ted Leonsis's Invention of Not Lying

By Mike Wise
Saturday, October 3, 2009

There is no more popular pro sports owner in Washington than Ted Leonsis today and, miracle of miracles, it has nothing to do with his competition.

He isn't embraced for his blow-kisses-to-the-crowd showmanship. Or because he spent his money wisely -- though that has helped.

Leonsis is not unanimously liked because he lucked into the most thrill-seeking hockey player in two decades and presided over a playoff team the past two years -- both of which the chairman and majority owner of the Washington Capitals did.

It's simpler than that.

In somewhat of a novel concept four years ago, Ted Leonsis told the truth.

He didn't sell hope. He sold hell, telling an angry and dwindling fan base that the Caps needed to be really bad before they got very good again. Season ticket holders found out, in fact, in a brutally honest letter written by Leonsis.

"Of course it was a gamble, because we had a team with brand-name players that fans thought they loved but in hindsight were just familiar to them," Leonsis said. "I said, 'You're going to hate this plan. This is a very hard message for you to internalize. But if you are patient with us, this is the only way we're going to compete for the Cup.' "

Risking losing even his loyalists by waving the white flag, he directly communicated "rebuild" instead of "reload," trotting out an on-the-cheap outfit for two years while promising eventual rewards from the draft and farm system.

The pain was quickly felt.

Post-NHL lockout, attendance tanked; fewer fans went to Caps games in 2005-06 than 27 other NHL teams.

"It was bad," sixth-year forward Brooks Laich said. "We would look up in the stands and the running joke with the players and coaches used to be, 'Hey, It's Dress Like A Seat Night.' "

At the time, Leonsis asked ask himself a tough question: "If your deliverable is to win a championship, do you think you have the system, culture and talent to deliver that?"

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