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What's Up Magazine

15 Minutes With…Ted Leonsis, Owner of Washington Capitals & Wizards

Nov 24, 2017 09:00AM
By Tom Worgo

Ted Leonsis is friendly, super smart, frank—and an eternal optimist. He’s made a name for himself as an entrepreneur and sports owner. But his marque franchises, the Wizards and Capitals, have yet to deliver a single championship.They are part of Monumental Sports and Entertainment, which also includes the lesser known WNBA’s Washington Mystics and two arena football teams, the Washington Valor and Baltimore Brigade. Leonsis’ teams play in the Capital One Arena (formerly Verizon Center), which he also owns.

And, he is much more than a sports owner. Leonsis’ wealth springs from AOL, which he helped create. AOL is a shell of its former self, but he left the business long before its decline began. The Potomac resident and Brooklyn, New York native sold his stake.

The 60-year-old Leonsis also has written several books, served as mayor of Orchid, Florida, is an active philanthropist, and started a movie production company, SnagFilms. One of his films, Nanking, won a News and Documentary Emmy Award in 2009.

What’s Up? Media recently talked to Leonsis about the Capitals and Wizards, being an entrepreneur, his books, and charity work.

How did the outdoor ice hockey game at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis, between the Capitals and Toronto Maple Leafs, come about?

We have been very committed to supporting our military services. The NHL has taken note of that and we held a very successful outdoor game in Washington, D.C., a couple years ago against Chicago at Nationals Park. The NHL has been toying with a series of games that would celebrate the military. When we discussed that at an owners meeting, I put my hand up. We work with the Navy on an, almost, daily basis and we have a very good relationship with the Navy in Annapolis. They have a hockey program. We said, ‘If you have a game there, we would love to be the host, we would sell it out, be the first, and the leader of these games.’

What is your take on the responsibility of owning the Capitals and Wizards?

There is deep social responsibility when you own sports teams and venues in a major-metro area. Nothing brings a community closer together than a winning sports team. If you can have teams that the fan base is proud of, it uplifts the community. If you can win a championship, you kind of put your stamp on that community forever. The Redskins and Ravens have won Super Bowls and the Orioles won a World Series. Those were bench marks for fathers and sons and mothers and daughters. It makes you feel that you are something bigger than you are. That’s what we are trying to do with the Caps and the Wizards.

Do you expect the Capitals and Wizards to win a Stanley Cup and NBA championship respectively in your lifetime?

Of course. We are really trying. It’s the hardest thing to do in business because it is so binary. There is one winner and 29 losers in the NHL. You don’t have that kind of clarity in business. You can be a very successful company being the second or third best. The Caps and Wizards are very, very successful in giving back to the community, selling tickets, and with the TV deals and ratings. The Capitals have been one of the best regular season teams for the last decade. But we haven’t won a Stanley Cup. That is the ultimate prize and what keeps us going. If we win a Cup, it makes lifelong memories.

You have a list of 101 personal and professional goals. You have done and achieved a lot of things in your life. What tops your list of things left to do?

Win an NBA championship or Stanley Cup. Everything has to come together at the same time and it would be magical. In terms of my list, it came out of personal reckoning and creating a scoreboard. We measure everything in our business life or personally. I think that’s a smart thing. I want to get 101 things done before I die. 

In your many business ventures, you seem steps ahead in terms of industry insight. How are you able to be so forward-thinking? Is that instinct or learned behavior?

I think being a liberal arts major was very helpful to me in connecting the dots and getting places faster. Then I think it’s a learned experience. I have always been and continue to be curious. I read a lot. I get involved in different industries to meet different people to learn points of view. I started making movies and hanging out with creative people. They are very helpful when you are launching a new tech product. I have also stayed connected to young people. When my son and daughter went to college, I went to campuses and saw what the young people were doing. That has compelled me in some of my investments.

You have written a couple of books. Which one had the biggest impact?

The Business of Happiness is the most meaningful to me because it provides inspiration to young people. It’s probably the one that has the strongest point of view. When I do speeches or talks on college campuses, or to big organizations, it’s a real scorecard for success. One of my favorite moments is to meet people and they say, “I bought your book and I just wanted to let you know how much it has motivated or helped me.”

Health and wellness appears to be something you take seriously. Do you have a fitness routine?

I do 20,000 steps a day and drink 64 ounces of water a day. I go to bed at 10 and get up at five. I don’t watch much television. I read a lot. I work out pretty hard from 6 to 7:30 a.m. every day in in the morning. I am mostly gluten free, but I have a sweet tooth I have to overcome. I try to maintain success in my health. There is greediness to it. My father lived until he was 94. I would like to do better than my father. As you get older, you realize how quickly the years pass. I ask myself, “What can I do to live to be a 100?”

Is your Greek heritage important to you?

Very much so. My parents left Greece because of war. The Turks and the Yugoslavs were invading Greece. They [my parents] were in pursuit of the American dream. I look at the world and it’s not that different. It’s that immigrant experience, sense of family, and contributing that this generation can do better than the last one. I think that comes from my heritage. I see a thriving Greek community in Baltimore and in D.C. I think we should continue to allow immigrants. It’s good for our country and economy. I look at my entrepreneurial background in technology. I can count all the great companies that were immigrant-based. 

What charity do you devote most of your time to and why?

There are a lot of charities I support. The one I am spending an inordinate amount of time on personally is education and scholarships for underprivileged and first-generation students. It’s very meaningful to me. My mom and dad were high school graduates. No one in my family had gone to college. I was the first to go to college. Graduating from Georgetown was a life-changing experience. So, I have first-hand experience in the power of a college education. Most of my work and effort is trying to get young people to go to college and stay in college. I roll up my sleeves, do the work, and mentor.