Taking ownership of the Washington Wizards is just the latest reckoning for Ted Leonsis
Wednesday, April 28, 2010
As he sat behind a giant curtain the day he bought the Washington Capitals in 1999, Ted Leonsis was already wealthy in the ways successful men measure such things. He had houses and cars, a wife and two children. His net worth was estimated at $1 billion. And as he waited on stage at what was then called MCI Center for the official announcement, it hardly seemed important to him that he was buying a hockey team.
Until Jonathan Ledecky, his partner in the deal, turned to him and said: "Are you ready for your life to change?"
Then the curtain parted, and suddenly Leonsis stared into a wall of flashbulbs without a speech or notes or an idea of what to say at the biggest news conference he had ever seen.
"It's a small business," Leonsis says now of the team he bought for $85 million. "Small revenue, but with a disproportionately big impact on a community."
This is a hard lesson for most new pro sports franchise owners to learn. Very often they are titans of industry as successful as Leonsis was at America Online, where he was the president of interactive properties, and then they buy sports teams that turn out to be civic trusts and come with very passionate fans. And yet through 11 years, Leonsis has come to be seen as one of the better owners in sports -- a man who learned to squelch his impulsiveness, control his combativeness and ultimately build a team through the proper mix of smart draft picks and savvy trades.
On Tuesday, Leonsis moved a step closer to getting the chance to apply these lessons on another Washington sports franchise. The family of Abe Pollin announced it had reached a deal to sell Leonsis -- the Pollins' minority partner the past 11 years -- the family's share in the Washington Wizards and Verizon Center, capping a negotiation that began with Pollin's death last November. It will put Leonsis atop a sports empire that could approach that of Redskins owner Daniel Snyder's enterprise in terms of power and size.
Although details were not released, the statement from Pollin's two sons, Robert and James, made clear the deal -- estimated at $550 million -- was done, and that a formal handover will soon follow. "We join our mother Irene, the sole principal owner of the franchise today, in congratulating Ted Leonsis and his Lincoln Holdings partners on reaching this near-final step in a long negotiation," they said. "All three of us look forward to them enjoying many years of success on the court and in the community with this wonderful franchise."
The announcement came as the Capitals prepared for a deciding Game 7 at Verizon Center on Wednesday night in their first-round playoff series against the Montreal Canadiens. After leading the series three games to one, the Capitals -- who just finished the best regular season in franchise history -- have lost the last two games, bringing the team to the brink of a monumental collapse that prompted cries of anguish and despair from fans on Internet message boards.
Leonsis responded on his blog, Ted's Take, with characteristic equanimity.
"So it all comes down to this," he wrote. "Can we play well and rise to the moment? Can we just focus on the game at hand in front of our home crowd? No talk of pressure. No talk of frustration. Just time to perform. One game. Series and season on the line.
"I believe we are up for it. See you all tomorrow night and thank you for your support. We need it. Good karma. Good vibes. Go Caps."
Owning a hockey team has given Leonsis something he never had in the business world: Fame. It has allowed him a daily blog, an e-mail address to which fans write him constantly and a peculiar identity as the face of a hockey team that happens to have the game's best player, Alex Ovechkin. But hockey also has given him financial losses -- perhaps as much as $100 million -- and taught him that neither money nor sheer force of personality could buy sports success.