The goals and objectives can be rather jolting when you first hear them. Ted Leonsis wants the Washington Capitals to be what? The Whole World's Team? He wants people in Houston, because they hate everything in Dallas, to adopt the Capitals? Crazier yet, he wants people in Slovakia, perhaps fans of their countryman Peter Bondra, to log on to their PC's and experience the Capitals via the Internet? He hopes the Capitals one day will be the second-most valued hockey franchise in the world? Boy, it's a shame the Capitals' new majority partner doesn't think big enough, isn't it?
I don't know just how much of this vision Leonsis will realize. But I must be crazy too, because I think he knows exactly what he's doing in trying to make the Capitals a major player in the global sports and entertainment industry.
In 1993, when talk of Internet companies becoming global empires seemed like some tech nerd's pipe dream, Leonsis was busy helping build one of those empires, America Online. During a luncheon at The Washington Post the other day, when somebody asked what he envisions for the Capitals, Leonsis said without any hesitation that it's possible the Caps could be, "the second-most valued franchise in hockey." And who would be first? "Rupert Murdoch will own some team in London or something," he said. The room fell silent and Leonsis said, "Well, you're thinking, 'That's crazy.' Except 20 years ago, if I'd said, 'Big, bad things will happen and we're going to watch CNN to find out about them . . . ' Hey, Dan Rather on his own [network] broadcast looks back over his shoulder at CNN. This is a global sport and this is our nation's capital. Five years from now, I'll be buying extra parking spaces. We're not trying to incrementalize our way up."
Leonsis's ability to create an identifiable brand isn't the question. The issue is whether people in this area want to buy pro hockey, buy into it with passion and a level of commitment that would suggest it's important. The empty seats for last night's home opener against the Los Angeles Kings underscored that; there were at least 3,000 of them. Hockey never has been sold particularly well in the United States, so Leonsis has got some project ahead of him. Of course, AOL's thriving presence is proof that Leonsis knows what he's doing. The Capitals aren't being run by an owner in the traditional way. Leonsis is going places most of us can't visualize, can barely comprehend--like Ted Turner 25 years ago, when half the world thought he was screwy.
While I believe Leonsis has a good feel for where he's going and how to get there, it doesn't cost me anything. However, it costs his partner, Jon Ledecky, a lot of money to believe. Ledecky alternates between wincing at the amounts of money Leonsis is spending, and marveling at the way Leonsis can see around corners. The success at AOL didn't impress Ledecky; it marked him for life. "The question," Ledecky said the other day, "is does he have the same vision about the Capitals? Can he pull it off one more time? I made a $60 million bet on that as a businessman. I'm investing $60 million in the genius of one person."
Some of Leonsis's observations are so basic and fundamental to good business, you wonder why somebody hadn't thought of them sooner. Leonsis wants the people working for his team to be folks who "live and breathe hockey," not people whose responsibilities might be split between hockey and basketball. The marketing approach, the music, the pregame hype, the game operations, all of it will be different because the people who attend the games are different from those who attend pro basketball games. Take, for instance, the organ that played grandly during last night's game. The NBA is hip-hop, R&B at the very least; the NHL is organ music. "What hockey people like isn't the same as what Mystics people like," Leonsis said. "Therefore you can't have the same approach."
Last night felt different, sounded different. The music popped, the videos had an edge. In an example of Leonsis's commitment to detail, he has his staff using film for those presentations, not videotape. Film looks better.
Does stuff that small matter to a franchise's overall success? Yes, when you're trying to build a brand that is more media- and "brand-centric" to use Leonsis's phrase. "In a new economy," he said, "impressions are what matter. That's why he has been annoyed with Home Team Sports, the regional sports cable television channel that carries Capitals games, but nowhere near enough of them.
Dick Patrick, a part owner of the Capitals with Abe Pollin and now with Leonsis, says this is all part of "building a hockey culture." Nobody would argue the Capitals have had that. Leonsis isn't alone in his philosophies; it's just that he's early to the party along with Redskins owner Daniel M. Snyder. "Owners who've been owners had it passed down to them, been third-generation owners," Ledecky said. "It's good to see business people come into this league."
Then Ledecky used another word new to the sports culture: "Netrepreneurs." You think with all the people who have made billions in Internet money that there aren't more guys like Leonsis eyeing sports franchises?
"The Web will transform sports, just like it has transformed every other business," Leonsis said. By last night, bands had played, and new advertisements and promotions could be seen everywhere around and inside MCI Center.
Tickets were still available, though. Leonsis spent some of the time between periods trying to figure out why certain sections were less populated than others. The club seats aren't his to control. But what about in those upper corners, the cheap seats? In his suite, it was festive. Up in the rafters, Leonsis seemed to study every row, all the while not missing a play. "Total immersion" is what he's in now. In case time and staggering success have allowed Leonsis and his staffers to forget how much work and attention to detail went into building AOL from scratch, it's no doubt trying to do something grand and global with the Capitals already has reminded them.