“In no other industry or business do you have this visceral emotional connection. And if you don’t take that seriously and understand the impact that you have, you can’t be a good team owner. You can’t be a good steward.”
Ted Leonsis, founder, chairman, principal partner, and chief executive officer of Monumental Sports & Entertainment; excerpted from an interview with the National Museum of American History, March 13, 2019. Edited for clarity by the National Museum of American History.
Childhood and sports
I was born in Brooklyn, New York, and it’s amazing to see that you would have some things from Ebbets Field at the museum. One of my first memories was my dad taking me to Yankees and then eventually Mets games and then to Jets games. And our neighborhood was working class. No one had gone to college. It was a completely diverse neighborhood and the commonality that we all shared was playing sports or watching your favorite teams. And I just remember throughout my childhood that the big moments were if the Yankees won the World Series or when the Mets won the World Series, the Jets won the Super Bowl, and just watching the neighborhood all gathered together as one to celebrate. I’ve told the story often about my father taking me to the parade for the Jets celebration of the Super Bowl and how totally indelible a memory that created. And when we [Washington Capitals] won the Stanley Cup this year and we had our parade, I briefed all of our players to look in the eyes of the kids on the street. That is a memory that will stay with them forever and somewhere in this crowd there is going to be a person who gets motivated from this experience. There will be someone who uses this memory, this event, this bonding experience to power their narrative and what they want to accomplish in their life.
“Father Durkin was a genius.”
I went to Georgetown University and every student at Georgetown had to do a thesis and you were given a mentor. And my mentor was a 75-year-old Jesuit priest. His name was Father Joseph Durkin. His whole worldview was that there is a beauty in creativity, and the way you create things is you connect the dots and you see a pattern. You see something different that someone else doesn’t see. He kept saying, “You’ve got to write a thesis; go to the library, just find some books, read something that is unexpected. Don’t read something that’s being assigned to you.” And I found the thinnest book in the library and it was called The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway. It’s a beautiful, beautiful book and there’s a lot of spiritual and religious overtones in it. And then there’s a lot of pop culture references in it. And I read some other books by Hemingway. The next book I got was Across the River and Into the Trees. It’s lucky I stumbled on the first book because I didn’t get it. This is like his most famous book, but all his other books are totally different in style and substance.
And I said, “I wonder if he wrote this book early in his career and then wasn’t as popular with these other books and brought it out and just put a new date on it.” Father Durkin said, “Well, that’s interesting. He was a journalist early in his career. He used to write for Esquire magazine. How could you prove it?” He said, “If you could prove that Hemingway wrote Old Man and the Sea earlier in his career, that would be big news.” So, I said, “I guess I could write a letter to the publisher and ask or ask his wife.” And Father Durkin said, “Why don’t you use a computer?” This was 1974; no one knew what computers were.
And so, now I had to connect the dots and they introduced me to one individual who worked in the registrar’s office who knew how to program, and then I met a woman who was a major in linguistics. And we talked about what we were trying to prove, and she came up with the idea that we could probably see patterns in writing style. So maybe we could create—we didn’t call it this at the time—an algorithm, a script where I ended up typing in—painfully slowly—the first 5000 words from Old Man and the Sea as a control. And then 5,000 words from a book written in 1940 and ‘45 and ‘50 and ’55, and then some major articles, cover stories from Esquire. And then the linguistics major created these counts, if you will, and words per sentence; sentences per paragraph; paragraphs per chapter; pronoun reference; 17 measures. The programmer did his thing; punch cards turned into this long computer paper. And it said, based on those 17 measures, this Old Man and the Sea book looks like it was written in the 1930s, not in 1951.
And it was like a giant moment for me. And Father Durkin said, “This is the first time ever that I know of where liberal arts and technology have come together.” And in the irony of ironies, I got to work during my career with Steve Jobs and Apple. Walter Isaacson wrote this book on Steve Jobs, and Steve was asked why Apple was the most valuable company in the world, and he said, “Apple is the place where liberal arts and technology come together.” And when I read that line, I highlighted it. I was like, Father Durkin was a genius; and had his pulse on the future!
On the Big Idea
When I graduated, my parents lived in Lowell, Massachusetts, and there was a new computer company called Wang Laboratories. And Dr. Wang was an immigrant, and he started this company as an entrepreneur against all odds to fight IBM. He was a revolutionary and he said, we will make our computers for the first generation of women who are entering the workforce. I was among the first liberal arts people to go work at a company like that. And very soon after joining the company—it was growing really fast—I became head of marketing and head of communications. I ended up having to go out West a lot because there was a lot bubbling with the Apple computers of the world. I went to the West Coast Computer Faire and I met Steve Jobs for the first time. I met Bill Gates for the first time. There was just this sense that something’s happening and we are insiders.
One day, I’m grocery shopping and as I’m checking out, there was a TV Guide and the front of the book was interviews with television show directors and stars, and then the back of the book was a directory, a grid of what show played on what network at what time. It was a database. And then I sat in front of my computer and I went, “Oh my gosh, this looks like a TV. And TV Guide is talking about networks—ABC and NBC—and I’m learning about networks—ethernet networks. The vocabulary is so similar; the form factor is so similar. I bet you that one day there will be no distinction between computers and televisions and telephones. This will all be one big industry.” I bought my first PC in 1978.
“We need a bigger boat”
I quit my job at Wang. I was very young. I had met some people when I was at Wang in an investment bank and they had me go to E. F. Hutton & Company. And they invited me in, and I gave my pitch about the future: computers would get smaller and smaller and cheaper and cheaper. And this would be the biggest industry in the world, and everyone will have a computer. And I would build that. I would create a magazine, a directory, an online service. And I laid it all out and they asked me to leave the room. And they called me back in, like an hour later, and the chairman of the company—his name was Robert Fomon. I’ll never forget this. He said, “Young man, no one here understands a word that you just said. Not a word. But your friend, Vinny, vouches for you and I think you can sell snow to the Eskimos. We’re going to invest a million dollars in your company.” I made one pitch and raised a million dollars and I created this magazine and directory database in Vero Beach, Florida. IBM had announced that they were going to build the IBM PC in Boca Raton and I drove down and met with Don Estridge at IBM. And I told him what I was doing, and I showed him a prototype and he said I want you to do one just for me, for the IBM PC. So, I launched, and when the IBM PC launched, Time magazine made the PC the Man of the Year. And we were front and center in this revolution and it exploded.
Later, I hired an investment bank called Hambrecht and Quist, which was out West. And my investment banker was a man named Dan Case. And Dan was this incredibly gifted, great guy. His nickname was “Upper Case.” And he had a brother who was now CEO of a little online company whose nickname was “Lower Case”—Steve Case, at America Online. And Dan said, “You want to meet my brother? You guys sound like the same person. I don’t understand what you’re talking about; what he’s talking about. But you, you’re seeing a world that not a lot of other people are seeing. You should meet.” So, we met for breakfast and they poured coffee and Steve said, “Well, my brother’s told me all about you. I know everything you do, and I want to buy your company.”
And I said, “Can we kiss first? Can I meet your parents? I mean, do you want to get married? First date?” But his logic was impeccable, which was: “We need a bigger boat.” That was a line from Jaws, the movie that was popular then. Steve said “There are probably a thousand people around the world that understand what this new world is going to look like. I have 250 people who get it at America Online. And you’ve got 150 people at your company. If we merge, we’d have 40 percent of the IP and the smart people and we’d be able to get further. We’ll merge, and I will make you president of America Online and I’ll be CEO. I’ll worry about international and shareholders, and banking, and mergers and acquisitions, and you will run the business. You will get America online.”
Becoming a sports team owner
We moved to Washington, D.C., in 1992. And D.C. was nothing like it is today. There was a flight out of Washington, D.C., to the suburbs. You kind of forget that it was abandoned. The city went bankrupt—if you can believe it. It was the number one city in the country for murders and it was a terrible time in the city. So, everyone was going to Maryland and Virginia. And AOL was in Northern Virginia. And the sports teams played in Maryland in the suburbs. Then Abe Pollin had this unbelievable idea to bring the arena back into the city, which he did. And I bought season tickets and started taking my family to games, and in 1998, the Caps went on this magical run and went to the Stanley Cup finals. And the family went to all the games and my son fell in love with the game. Our season tickets were right next to where the visiting team players come in and out. And a player from the Boston Bruins broke his stick in anger. And the guy from the arena took the stick and handed it off to my son. And Zach glued the stick together and framed it and put it up; it was his first memorabilia—if you will.
And then someone approached me to buy the team. And initially I didn’t want to buy the team. I passed. I was busy at AOL. My kids were young. It was a lot of money. It was a lot of scrutiny. And it was my wife and then my son who said, “Are you kidding me? Buy the team!” I have this list of 101 things to do before I die, and 40 or 41 was: own a team, win a championship. And my son goes, “Dad, what could be cooler than owning sports teams? You’ve got to do this.” And my wife, her thing was, “I know how you are. Your whole thesis now is live life without regrets. So, you’ve got to do this.”
The transformational power of sports
When you talk to a young person and you try to explain to them what D.C. was like 20 years ago and what it’s like today, they can’t get their heads wrapped around it.
I think there’s 140 restaurants within walking distance of the arena. We bring three million people into the arena every year with music and sports. And it’s attractive now, there are 70,000 people a year moving back into the city, mostly young people. And it’s made D.C. a burgeoning super city. In super cities, there is a defining business industry—like Wall Street or Hollywood. We have federal D.C. But the sports teams play this unbelievable role. We punch way above our weight in terms of influence.
One, we [sports] have an entire section of the news and the newspaper dedicated to us. The Washington Post doesn’t have a business section. They have a page on business. We have a whole section. When I bought the team and I was still president of America Online, I would laugh because we’d launch a new product that would do a couple of billion dollars of revenue at America Online and we’d get a paragraph in the paper on it. And then the Caps would sign a backup goaltender and there’d be a big story with a big picture.
And so, I saw for the last 20 years this unbelievable importance of sports to our community and the higher calling of yes, we’re going to sell a lot of tickets; yes, we’re going to own the media outlets; yes, we’ll get good ratings. But if we can win a championship, we will bond the community together. And it was unbelievable when we went on our run and won the Stanley Cup where I remember perhaps five years ago someone from the Washington Post saying to me, “We’ve done our research and there were 15,000 people in our community that care about hockey.” And I said, “You’re out of your mind. We were in the playoffs and there’s 20,000 people coming into the arena to watch the game; on television there’s 50,000 people outside the arena watching the game.”
So, I’ve just found that sports is a convener, it brings people together and makes the indelible family and friend memories; the touch points. And I way underestimated the social responsibility behind it. We have to be the exemplar organization in our community. We take that very seriously. The payback on it is that I can’t go anywhere without someone having some kind of opinion. But at the same time, that’s such a small price to pay.
The other day, I’m at the mall with my wife. And the mall’s deserted. And I’m waiting outside as my wife is buying some shoes. And this, like, 70-year-old guy says, “You’re Ted Leonsis?” And I said, “Yeah.” And he puts his hand out and I put my hand out. And he pulls me in and gives me an uncomfortably long hug. And he says, “I grew up here all my life. I’ve been going to Caps games since 1974. My father and grandfather and brother, we’d all go to the games together. Several of them have passed away. You won the Stanley Cup. I cried my eyes out. I feel one of the great burdens of my life has been released. I honestly can die in peace.”
In no other industry or business do you have this visceral emotional connection. And if you don’t take that seriously and understand the impact that you have, you can’t be a good owner. You can’t be a good steward. And it truly is a public trust. It’s not my team. It’s your team. It’s our team. I’m just kind of the steward of it. But remember the Washington Capitals won’t always be mine. It’ll be the city’s, but owners generationally will move on. I’m hoping I’m smart enough to be able to keep it in the family. But at the same time, I’ve said I will be here and own the team and be a steward way longer than any president will be in the White House; way longer than any Mayor will be presiding. We represent longevity and the true character and spirit of the city.
On the Collections
The way that you curated and dealt with the objects in the aggregate was very moving to me. I have cufflinks that have been made from the game winning goal and one of the pucks that scored a goal in the Stanley Cup. And someone gave me a little bottle and they had melted some of the ice. I have a Mickey Mantle signed baseball that I’ve collected. And you feel sometimes odd, you know. Like, for the uninitiated, why is that important to you? And then you go into the museum and you see an eighth-grade class and they’re looking at the ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz and take a picture of them. Nobody thought one day that would be like the most iconic thing and that every generation has watched that movie. “There’s no place like home.” “There’s no place like Washington, D.C.”