With Jordan and Jagr, Leonsis is all offense
By Darren Rovell
So, what gives Ted Leonsis the guts to stand up to his most famous employee, Michael Jordan?
Maybe it is his net worth of almost $1 billion. Maybe it is the fact that Leonsis has been an integral part of expanding America Online, growing its subscriber base from thousands to millions.
Or maybe it's his list of "101 Things To Do."
"I promised myself that if I didn't die, I'd play offense for the rest of my life," he says now. For Leonsis that meant compiling a list of "101 Things to Do" and then doing them.
In 18 years since a safe landing, the 45-year-old Leonsis has crossed off a remarkable 71 items.
He fell in love and got married (No. 1), had a son and daughter (Nos. 2 and 3), and achieved a net worth of more than $100 million (No. 14). He owns a jet (No. 24) and a yacht (No. 25) and bought his Ferrari (No. 30) five months ago. He met Mickey Mantle (No. 45) at a private party in Manhattan in 1989, held elective office (No. 92) as mayor of Orchid, Fla., for five years, and advised a foreign government (Israel, in 1999, No. 94). He even invented a board game (No. 86) -- "Only in New York," in 1987 -- and caught a foul ball (No. 46).
And three years ago, he bought a sports franchise (No. 40) -- reluctantly, he says, with a laugh.
When Abe Pollin, then the owner of the Washington Capitals, offered Leonsis the opportunity to buy the team, Leonsis replied, "I have no interest in buying the (Capitals), Abe. But, you see, I have to get it off my list." In May 1999, Leonsis paid $80 million for the National Hockey League franchise. Now Leonsis' group, Lincoln Holdings, owns the Capitals and 44 percent of the Washington Wizards, with the option to buy the rest should the 78-year old Abe Pollin give up his share or die.
Although he might have been reluctant at first, Leonsis has demonstrated tremendous dedication to his acquisitions. Because Washington, D.C., is a commuter town, the Capitals needed a star to elevate fan interest. So Leonsis acquired the NHL's reigning scoring leader the past four years running -- Jaromir Jagr -- and soon signed him to a contract extension that makes him one of the highest-paid players in the game. Likewise, Leonsis brought Jordan to a hoops-mad city that hasn't had an NBA team to cheer about in more than two decades. He made Jordan president of the team and gave him a share, realizing that if Jordan were to make a comeback it would have to be with the Wizards. Twenty-eight other owners wished they had a similar insight.
His attention to detail makes him something of a low-key Mark Cuban. Leonsis doesn't have the fame and notoriety of the Dallas Mavericks owner, to be sure, but the two do share some traits. For starters, both Cuban and Leonsis have done what it takes to win -- in the case of Leonsis, the Caps won Southeast Division titles during his first two seasons, though they have struggled this season due to injuries.
Cuban and Leonsis made a large part of their fortunes in the computer and Internet business, and understand how to use the medium to their advantage. Just as Cuban gives his e-mail address to fans, Leonsis flashes his (WashingtonCaps@aol.com) at games, and goes one step further -- he puts his face on the scoreboard's video screen to see if fans will cheer or boo.
Why do most of them cheer? Because Leonsis is one of the most accessible and responsive owners in sports. When he took over the Capitals, he asked season ticket holders what they hated about going to games. He quickly assembled a list of 125 complaints that he sought to eliminate.
"If you don't like the Washington Capitals," Leonsis says. "I take it personally."
Fan satisfaction is further accomplished through interaction with Leonsis, largely via e-mail.
"I learn more from the fans than through studies, and through people that work for me," Leonsis says. "It ranges from acoustics to time waits in concession lines to ticket pricing, scalping issues and player wish lists."
The man whose net worth has been estimated at slightly less than $1 billion also answers fans' requests for things such as food preferences in the upper sections.
"With e-mail, I can take a request such as 'Please have the cotton candy man come to my section in the second period,' " Leonsis says. "And I forward it to the facility department and copy the sender of the e-mail with a note such as 'Make it so.' Then I get a response (from the facility department) that says, 'It will happen next game.'
"Now fast forward to two days later when I get an e-mail that says, 'Wow, I can't believe you took care of my request so fast and efficiently.' And that e-mail was copied to about 15 friends. This entire transaction took exactly 90 seconds of my time and we have a committed and happy fan. Now multiply that experience by the number of e-mails I've answered (more than 23,000) and you can see what I mean by creating a passionate community just via e-mail."
Despite all the correspondence and the visibility at the arena, he remains largely unknown outside Washington, D.C. In a recent Harris Interactive poll, which asked the general population about their awareness of 14 sports owners, Leonsis came in last; only 7 percent of respondents recognized his name.
But Leonsis is doing something right. Of those who recognized his name, 83 percent thought positively of him. "The approval rating is the important thing," Leonsis says. "My profile locally is unbelievably high, so I don't care if I'm known across the country like George Steinbrenner or Jerry Jones. I don't say anything at the NHL or NBA owner's meetings, and I haven't been fined."
In two and a half years, the season ticket base has grown from 2,500 to 12,000, and the team has more than doubled overall revenues.
But he wants to do more than market the team, increase revenues and win division titles. One of the items remaining on his list is to win a world championship (No. 41) -- it would be the first for the Capitals.
And Leonsis has other goals that remain unfulfilled. He has yet to play Augusta (No. 52) or St. Andrews (No. 55), and he says he was 12 feet short of a hole-in-one (No. 59) at the Windsor course in Vero Beach, Fla. Nor has he gone to outer space (No. 84) or won a Grammy, Tony or Oscar (No. 88).
Of the 30 goals remaining on his list, one would seem especially easy to accomplish -- to go one-on-one with Jordan (No. 65). But the two men have never gone at it -- on the court, at least. Leonsis says too many people found out about it on the day it was scheduled to happen.
That doesn't mean the trash talking hasn't taken place. As Leonsis tells it, one day he and Jordan got in an argument about the Wizards.
"I have six rings, and I know what I'm doing," said Jordan, holding up six fingers.
Leonsis held up seven fingers.
"What's that for?" Jordan asked.
"Since I've been at AOL, the stock has split seven times," Leonsis fired back.
They both laughed.
The sense of joy Leonsis conveys as he tells the story is part and parcel of the way he has conducted his life since that fateful day in 1983.
"When people go to funerals, they are sad," Leonsis says. "Well, I've always said that if you've lived a full life and your family and friends can see what a joyful life you've led, they feel happy. I can just imagine the joy when someone says, 'Hey man, I did Nos. 52, 27 and 19 with Ted.' "
Darren Rovell, who covers sports business for ESPN.com, can be reached at Darren.firstname.lastname@example.org.