Ted Leonsis is finally doing something besides blog. Up to now, the owner of two of the four major pro sports teams in town has been more blustering than active. But Leonsis acted Saturday in making wholesale changes to the Washington Capitals, weary of their plateaued and dispirited play, even though it meant distracting his customers from the Washington Wizards’ clench-fisted performance in the NBA playoffs.
Leonsis has put himself squarely on the spot — and in an interesting way. His decision is counterintuitive, and equally intriguing for the timing and messaging. The Capitals missed the NHL playoffs this season for the first time since 2007. The Wizards hadn’t made the playoffs since 2008. Yet the Caps are the team whose management Leonsis decided to gut, firing coach Adam Oates and refusing to renew the contract of general manager George McPhee. The difference? “Where we are in the plan,” Leonsis said at a late afternoon news conference.
It’s a striking move, and a viscerally assertive one from an owner who until now had seemed more interested in his roles as a marketing impresario, venture capitalist, and quirky self-help author with a shrinking waistline and stand-up hair. It’s based on Leonsis’s personal calculation that the two teams are headed in opposite ways — and he’s right.
The Wizards, for all of their struggles and occasional wrongheadedness, are a team clearly on their way up, clawing toward a better future. There was no better expression of that than their feisty two-games-to-one lead over the Chicago Bulls in their Eastern Conference playoff series, and the explosive nature of their loss in Game 3 at the Verizon Center, with Nene ejected and suspended for putting a Vulcan death grip on Jimmy Butler’s neck.
“The building was loud, and the vibe was unbelievably strong,” Leonsis observed.
Whereas the apathetic and floundering Capitals are on a downward tilt. In six straight playoff appearances, they never moved past the second round, and clearly regressed this season, missing the postseason at 38-30-14. The juxtaposition is glaring. One team is hosting a home playoff game; the other is sagging, and that’s what led Leonsis to make the first fundamental change in his 15-year tenure.
“I’ll just say we were left with the overall impression that the team wasn’t trending towards competing for a Stanley Cup championship,” Leonsis said.
It’s a fact that although Leonsis has been a franchise owner since he bought into the Caps and Wizards in 1999, it’s hard to pronounce him particularly good or bad at it, because he’s made no big moves. He left McPhee largely alone as GM. He has let the Wizards’ Ernie Grunfeld do as he wished despite some tear-down-and-rebuild years. But that in and of itself is a kind of signature: He has been a responsible steward, sensibly reluctant to insert himself into decisions, or to rashly dismiss veteran managers. He has been the anti-Dan Snyder: patient, not impulsive, non-interfering. His blog “Ted’s Take” has been primarily a cheerleading organ.
But he apparently knows stagnation when he sees it. He also knows that moments arrive when your customers demand more if they’re going to stay interested. After a series of postseason exit interviews with Caps players, Leonsis says he had a sense of leveling-off, if not a downward trend.
“This is about hockey,” he said. “We sold all the tickets we can sell; we sold all the jerseys we can sell. We were a continuously improving hockey team, until we weren’t.”
McPhee is a classy manager, but the Caps hadn’t made it past the second round of the playoffs since his first year, despite six head coaches — three in the last four years. Oates was brought in to rouse them but instead was a bad fit who seemed to sow dissension. Leonsis had to decide whether to let McPhee look for a seventh head coach. How long do you keep allowing him to make hires?
This is unprecedented territory for Leonsis, and it marks a change in expectations of him. Now he has made a proactive move, and it was hardly a safe one: He dismissed a GM who missed the playoffs only once in the past seven years, while keeping another GM who missed the playoffs for six years straight. Now it’s Leonsis’s turn to make his first significant hires, and they will give us a better idea of who he is as an owner.
Leonsis is testing himself in a way he hasn’t up to this point: He’s opened himself up to examination. Will he have the judgment to identify, interview and lure good candidates? What will he look for? What does he want?
The Wizards provide a clue. Leonsis claims that he understood and accepted that the Wizards would struggle over the last few years while Grunfeld rebuilt the roster. “We’re going to go young, and be bad,” he said. But that when the turnaround came, “the atmosphere will follow.”
On Friday night the Verizon Center was so teeming with Wizards fans in red “DC Rising” T-shirts that the place looked like a boiling lobster pot. Not until the final 30 seconds or so did it go quiet, when people began clutching their heads at the realization that the Bulls would take a 100-97 victory in Game 3.
That’s the atmosphere Leonsis wants, and the kind of attractive, promising team he wants. One with a blazing, ardent young core in John Wall and Bradley Beal, surrounded by combativeness and size in Marcin Gortat and Nene, and backed by veteran leadership and a coach in Randy Wittman who has them sharing the ball with unconscious ease. After all these years, it just might be the prettiest team Grunfeld has ever built, and that Leonsis has had to sell.
Until now, Leonsis has been a stronger presence online than in person. But he has stepped front and center. There is a lot we don’t know about him as an owner, but we learned something about him this weekend. We already knew he would support long-term rebuilding projects, and back a struggling team with promising bones. “I believe in continuity, I believe it’s very important,” he said. But we learned that he will not tolerate a dull status quo. His first big moves were the right ones.
For more by Sally Jenkins, visit washingtonpost.com/jenkins.