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I'm 'The Chief Worrying Officer': Ted Leonsis On Running Washington Sports

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

If you want to know where Ted Leonsis is these days, well, that can be hard to track down. Chances are he is at or flying to or flying from a ballgame. Leonsis is the owner of the NHL's Washington Capitals, the NBA's Washington Wizards, the WNBA's Washington Mystics and the Verizon Center where all those teams play. And both the Wizards and the Capitals are still in the playoffs at the same time. Fortunately, Ted Leonsis has landed for a moment and he's with us in the studio. Good to see you.

TED LEONSIS: Thank you.

SIEGEL: The Wizards lost game two last night to the Hawks in Atlanta. What time did you get back to Washington?

LEONSIS: Almost two o'clock in the morning.

SIEGEL: And you have a game tonight.

LEONSIS: We have a game tonight. The Caps play the Rangers, and then we do have a respite. We have Thursday off, but that we go Friday night, Saturday, Sunday, potentially Monday. There's been a relentlessness to this, but there's so much joy wrapped up in it. It's been a wonderful experience.

SIEGEL: You are a member of a very elite club of owners who've had two teams in post-season playoffs in the same season. Including yourself, I count about four people who've done this. Does it add to the pressure? Do you feel better or do you feel more nervous this time of year because of it?

LEONSIS: Well, there's a lot of stress related to holding a bit of the psychology and human spirit of your community in the palm of your hands. If the team loses, it's not a fun day the next day. And if the team wins, everyone is uplifted and they're talking positively about the game. So I do feel that kind of pressure. The one thing I will say is that teams play such a central role in major urban settings. I mean, just look honestly at academic institutions, because of their longevity and iconic real estate and green space and business communities and then frankly sports teams.

SIEGEL: You've obviously decided to be a very accessible, open owner. You are not the wizard - you're not the guy behind the curtain manipulating things. You're very accessible. You receive and answer email from people. You're at the games. How do you describe your role as the owner and your relationship to the fans?

LEONSIS: I think of myself as the chief cheerleader, I would say, and sometimes the chief worrying officer. I think by personality I'm an extrovert, so I get my energy from people. I also have a deep-seated belief that there's a huge social responsibility in owning these iconic brands and that the teams are really aren't owned by me and my partners. They're really owned by the city itself. And so we want to be in service to the community. And so if you're not out and about with the people and listening to them, it's very hard to remain in touch and create relevance and make the experience one that can be shared by everyone.

SIEGEL: You've had great success with both the Capitals and the Wizards. And I wonder is success at being an owner - is it a matter of making a couple of very big decisions right - you know, who's the general manager? Who's the coach? Or is it a matter of constantly having to make good decisions? Are you brought in or are you fairly removed from those day-to-day decision?

LEONSIS: That's a very astute question. And first, I'd say that the crucible of sports is very unforgiving and you could argue that we haven't been successful at all. In the NBA, there's one winner and 29 losers. And in the NHL there's one winner and 29 losers. And in fact, you can be the second best team on a consistent basis and be considered the biggest losers of the decade, which happened in football with the Buffalo Bills in the NFL.

And what I have found is that I'm good in terms of helping to set strategy, in creating a culture, in being patient, in caring for the employees and for the fan base. But in terms of running a team and making decisions about what the lineup is or the system that we should play, I never played professional sports. I couldn't add value. Now, ask me about a website or ask me about, you know, how we should market the team, there I think I can add value.

SIEGEL: You once told Sports Illustrated I believe that I should work on really, really big things and really, really small things and leave the middle for everybody else.

LEONSIS: I believe that. I think articulating the higher calling and the aspiration and what's the double bottom line intent of your organization - how can you do well by doing good - that that's important. Then, hundreds of little positive things - you know, the day I received an email from someone who's had a family member who passed away and they wanted to be buried with a Capitals jersey autographed by someone. And I felt, well, that's certainly something that - it's an email and a transaction. But think of how important this must be to this family that a loved one wants to be buried with a jersey. And so I personally handle that. And that's a little thing, but to me, I knew the impact and the importance to that.

SIEGEL: A really small thing for you, a really big thing for the family in question.

LEONSIS: Exactly.

SIEGEL: You were born in Brooklyn.

LEONSIS: I was and my dad was a waiter. And sometimes his customers would give him as a tip tickets to Rangers games or Knicks games. And one Christmas, my dad for Christmas gift and birthday gift got tickets to the Jets. And they were $7 a game, and it was seven games - seven home games.

SIEGEL: At Shea Stadium?

LEONSIS: At Shea Stadium - so it was $99, and that was my big gift. And it was just such a wonderful formative time in my life. And I'd go to church Sunday morning, and I'd run back and change, and my dad and I would take two subways and go out to Shea Stadium. And it was during the year of Joe Namath and the like, and one year they won the Super Bowl.

SIEGEL: Yeah.

LEONSIS: And I remember the only day that my dad ever took off from work and took me out of school was to go to the ticker-tape parade celebrating the Jets' Super Bowl victory. And just that image of being up on his shoulders as the floats went by and being with all of the people, still to this day that has stayed with me. And I want desperately to replicate that feeling that I had with my dad in that moment with another father and another young son or mother and daughter.

I don't know any other business where you can conjure up those memories or frankly make grown men cry, right? I know if we are ever fortunate enough to win a championship, I'll lose it, right? I've taken companies public, you know? I've won an Emmy award for movies. I mean, I've had a lot of accomplishments. But they never made me weep and cry. And I know because, one, it's so hard to achieve, but two, it's so meaningful in such a shared way by so many people. And that honor and privilege of providing that to your community is just beyond description.

SIEGEL: Well, Ted Leonsis - owner of the Washington Wizards, still in the playoffs in the NBA and the Washington Capitals, still in contention for the Stanley Cup. Thank you very much for talking with us.

LEONSIS: Thank you. It was an honor. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.