A Brand-Name Future
Washington Post Columnist
Thursday, May 13, 1999; Page D1
The universe Ted Leonsis inhabits professionally is beyond my comprehension in a lot of ways. It's a world of links and servers, search engines and web browsers, a world that is interactive and where reality can be virtual. When Leonsis, the new Capitals owner and the man who probably will own the Wizards sooner rather than later, talked yesterday about ways to improve the Capitals and better market the team, he said, "We have to think out of the box," which is not something you would have heard, oh, George Steinbrenner say when he bought the Yankees 30 years ago.
But some things in sports never change, whether we're talking about the NFL, which in the 1930s thought pushing the envelope was broadcasting games on radio, or a hockey team that might have its games webcast on the Internet. Leonsis's world isn't so far out that he can't appreciate the old-fashioned virtues that separate the mediocre franchises from the champions. And to me, he had his finger on the pulse when he said, "This franchise needs a jolt of energy. A shot of energy is necessary to really get the hockey team going. I'm a closer. Abe Pollin's a great man and he needs some help. Building businesses and great brands is what I've done for a living. ... You have to win. You can't have a bad day. Results matter."
Okay, the losing has gone on so long around here, it's easy to take the position that talk is cheap. But my first impression of Leonsis is he's a bright, assertive guy who is as serious about winning as the day is long. And having helped put AOL where it is, he knows exactly how to go about building a winning brand. Yesterday, it was the sports channel at AOL, tomorrow it'll be hockey on Seventh Street NW.
The Washington Capitals are going to be different, starting now. They're going to be better on the ice because Leonsis, who is said to be worth nearly a billion dollars, is going to go after players and market the team in ways Pollin did not do. Whenever Leonsis takes over the Wizards, they'll be better on the court for the same reasons. Both franchises do need a shot of energy, an infusion of demanding creativity. They need to be built with imagination and packaged progressively so that sports fans in this community are excited about the product again.
Anything said in praise of Leonsis is going to be seen as taking a shot across Pollin's bow, which shouldn't necessarily be the case. It is to Pollin's everlasting credit that he brought two professional teams to Washington (three if you count the NBA-owned Mystics). And we'll one day look back on the revitalization of downtown D.C. as having started with the construction of his MCI Center. As Capitals Coach Ron Wilson said yesterday, "He built a place like this without going into anybody's pocket. Not one taxpayer can complain that he or she had to fund this building." When Leonsis said that Pollin had "built something of incredible value against tremendous odds," he wasn't exaggerating.
But the nature of sports won't let us be satisfied with a sparkling new arena and two disappointing, stale teams. Sometimes, it's just best to start anew. Anybody who has ever been to the AOL headquarters in Northern Virginia will tell you how the place jumps with energy, how the halls crackle with smart ideas. Leonsis, back when AOL was struggling to get a foothold, told an employee to simply come up with one cool idea every day. When Microsoft was going to launch a product that was expected to take down AOL, it was Leonsis who rallied the troops, promised that Microsoft was not going to beat down AOL, and made everybody sign a huge banner saying just that. People who work there remember it as one of the most stirring and competitive moments in the company's history. I talked to four people about him yesterday and every one of them said he is "a visionary," that he sees the world differently, that he's an ideas fanatic.
Leonsis said several things yesterday that demonstrated as much, including, "Everything we do with the Capitals will be, 'more entertainment.' " And at one point he said, "I may not be able to tell you the two top defensemen in the NHL, but I can tell you how to present and package a brand." To research Capitals President Dick Patrick, his partner in the Capitals venture, Leonsis said he looked up Patrick on the Internet, and said, "I use the Internet every day to get smarter."
So how will this manifest itself in improving the teams?
For starters, Capitals GM George McPhee might have liked to have made some more moves this season but felt he couldn't. Look, the concept of "rich" is extremely relative. Pollin felt offended, and I don't blame him, when his teams were called "mom and pop" operations. But they were, relative to the resources the Knicks and Rangers had at their disposal or to the resources that Miami Heat owner Micky Arison has at his disposal. Can a man worth, say, $250 million compete with a company worth $5 billion?
Not in today's sports climate. That doesn't make Pollin "cheap" it just means his pockets aren't as deep. If McPhee wants to offer a ton of money to free agent-to-be Theo Fleury, Leonsis probably won't blink. You see how the Red Wings got Chris Chelios, Wendel Clark, Ulf Samuelsson and Bill Ranford late in the season for a playoff push? McPhee didn't have the green light to do that this season. But come next March, he probably will.
The Capitals and Wizards have had little choice but to use two or three people to do the work the Knicks, Bulls, Lakers, Mighty Ducks and Canadiens have a half-dozen doing. In Washington, Wes Unseld is GM of the Wizards and Mystics. In New York, the MSG executives hired Carol Blazejowski to run the WNBA Liberty. Which team do you think has the competitive advantage? "There's a huge void," one person intimately familiar with Washington Sports and Entertainment told me yesterday. "There simply are not enough people [in upper level management] to get important work done in a competitive environment." Another example: several NHL teams have five people working on game operations on any given game night. The Capitals and Wizards share one person, and as a result, game operations elsewhere help draw more paying customers. Watch that change in a hurry.
Several times, Leonsis was pressed on when he might assume control of the Wizards. My impression is that while he loves hockey, basketball is in his blood; he is from Brooklyn, after all. With everybody desperately looking for any sign that somebody might rescue the Wizards, too, Leonsis chose his words carefully, almost advisedly, and said, "I want to make a winner of what I have first."
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company