During a wide-ranging, 90-minute interview with Washington Post reporters and editors on Wednesday, Ted Leonsis discussed Monumental Sports & Entertainment group’s new media deal with Comcast SportsNet Mid-Atlantic, his plans for Monumental Sports Network’s over-the-top subscription service and the challenges of operating the Capitals, Wizards and Mystics with a mortgage on Verizon Center that costs him an estimated $36 million annually.
Leonsis, who described the Verizon Center mortgage as the “worst building deal in professional sports,” also addressed perhaps the most common criticism from fans of his teams in recent years, that he’s been overly patient with Wizards team President Ernie Grunfeld.
“I think that fans [believe] in the win-now [mind-set], and if you don’t win now, if you lose two games in a row, make a change,” Leonsis said. “And they should be. It’s fantastic. It generates click streams. Right now, we developed a plan. I was in the middle of it. We were executing against the plan and the plan is working slower than I wanted it to be. But I’m in the middle of it.”
Leonsis has said he’s evaluating Grunfeld for what he’s done since Leonsis bought the Wizards in 2010, not all 13 of Grunfeld’s seasons in Washington. When the Wizards introduced Scott Brooks as their new coach in April, Leonsis said he didn’t really consider making changes to the front office.
“Because we were executing to the plan,” Leonsis said at the time. “If we had varied from the plan and the plan didn’t work, then I think it would’ve been in my realm of responsibility to take a look. But we were executing a plan that we agreed to when I bought the team five years ago.”
“The plan,” which at its most basic level involves developing a core of young talent while maintaining salary cap flexibility, has become a source of mockery for Wizards fans, many of whom don’t hesitate to let Leonsis know their feelings about how he’s running the team. After the Wizards blew a late fourth-quarter lead and went into overtime against Memphis on Sunday, Leonsis said he saw a tweet that read, “Time to sell the team.”
“There are ways that you can judge how you’re doing and it can’t be purely on tweets,” Leonsis said. “I mean I’m not deaf. But [decisions] can’t be [made] purely on chatter. I’ll leave it at that. I feel more accountable for our success and failure than a single individual. So blame me.”
Leonsis added that Grunfeld’s hold on the general manager job is not tied to the five-year contract that Brooks signed with the team. He’s also confident that the Wizards will achieve the same level of success in the NBA as the Capitals have in the NHL.
“We will have a fantastic training facility, we’ll have the best coaches, we’ll have great young players that we can retain, we’ll eventually be able to land a free agent, we will improve our performance and we’ll wake up and we’ll be a ‘have’ team,” he said. “We’ll be a team that is reflective of our value and our market. Today we’re not.”
Some of the other topics that Leonsis addressed:
The future of Monumental Sports
With an empire that could soon include six teams, four buildings, his own OTT network and a minority stake in a major regional sports network, Leonsis said he has amassed “probably one of the top three most valuable sports and entertainment franchises in sports.” While he would not put a firm estimate on its worth, he said it is north of $2 billion.
Monumental Sports Network launched its OTT subscription service last month. The service will stream hundreds of live games, including the Mystics and Valor, but CSN Mid-Atlantic remains the exclusive home of the Capitals and Wizards. Leonsis said he could envision a day when regional sports networks such as CSN are “unbundled” from traditional cable packages, and D.C.-area fans will be able to purchase a stand-alone “skinny bundle” that pairs Capitals and Wizards games on Comcast with the additional coverage on Monumental Sports Network.
“Maybe . . . you get all that sports programming and it’s $14.95 [per month],” he said. “Well, we’re now the best-prepared, most future-proof [company] of any market — because of this deal.”
Alex Ovechkin and the 2018 Olympics
Just as he did before the 2014 Sochi Games, Leonsis said he would support Alex Ovechkin and any other Capitals players who want to play in the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea, even if the NHL chooses not to allow its players to participate. (A decision is expected in early 2017.) Ovechkin has said he would defy an NHL ban in order to play for his homeland of Russia.
“What am I going to say? ‘I’m sorry, Alex’?” Leonsis said. “I’ll say, ‘Please don’t get hurt.’ That’s the risk I’m taking. And maybe I’m going to get fined [by the NHL]…. But I’ve told him, I’ve told the commissioner and everybody, if Alex Ovechkin says he wants to play, and Nick Backstrom says he wants to play, what am I going to say — no? Every team, every owner will make their decision. But I already know what I’m going to do. I’m not going to stop them.”
The Redskins’ next stadium
Leonsis said he has not discussed D.C.’s future sports landscape with Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder, despite their apparent shared interest in shaping that future. The Redskins are believed to be looking for a new home to replace FedEx Field.
“I’m my own man,” Leonsis said in regards to Snyder. “He’s his own man.”
The NFL’s ratings decline
Leonsis said the glaring decline in television ratings for the NFL this season, a subject of much scrutiny by sports and media insiders this fall, is the result of a “confluence of things happening in media,” but he pointed to the NFL’s reliance on traditional cable and over-the-air television, which younger viewers increasingly are shunning.
“To me, the biggest issue that sports is having is that if you have an older audience, they’re dying off,” Leonsis said. “And football was designed for television. It was the absolute perfect sport for TV, and training a generation of young males to assume they knew football … But the young people that they need aren’t on cable. So they have to get streamed highlights [via] Facebook, Twitter … The NBA early on [recognized this], and guess what? We trained a generation that was young that the NBA is cool and social and real-time. Same with the NHL.”
Leonsis said he made no attempt to buy D.C. United when the franchise was sold in 2012, but he did consider such an attempt the previous time it was sold, in 2007, and regrets not making a stronger push.
“I looked at buying it outright 10 years ago. I wish I had. I made a mistake,” he said. “And I couldn’t, to be honest with you, because I had so much to do and so many losses financially to cover with the Caps and Wizards that it was impossible to envision the heavy lift of doing that. And in hindsight, I wish I did.”