Friday, April 13, 2007

An Interview with Ted Leonsis (Part 1)

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to meet Ted Leonsis and attend a game in the owner's box. It was a really thrilling experience and despite the loss to the Penguins (again) it was a great evening. One of the things I regretted, though, was that I never really got a chance to speak with Ted as I had planned to do, being too in awe of the whole scene to actually talk in full sentences.

Because our entire interaction had consisted of a brief hello and then a brief goodbye, Ted was nice enough to sit down with me for a phone interview earlier this week to talk about all the things I had wanted to discuss. Special thanks to Ted and his assistants who were very helpful in setting this up.

CC: Over the past season or two you’ve really opened the door to the blogging community, and it’s something that other teams are starting to emulate although not to the same extent as the Caps. What drew you to bloggers in particular and what do you think they bring to a team’s fan base?

TL: Specifically three things. First of all, I really believe in the medium. Being involved in the internet for a long, long time, one of the basic premises is that there’s this inate intelligence in the wisdom of crowds. If you can make tools and generate interest and traffic there would be people who were very passionate and very articulate [and] their words deserve to be heard. So I just knew in our fanbase, based on the e-mails I’ve been getting over the years, there were some very bright people. We knew if we could help activate a blogosphere it would be a very good experience for the bloggers but it would also be beneficial to our franchise because the more dialogue, the more conversation, the more coverage, the better for us.

Secondly, I believe that traditional media, especially newspapers are in peril right now. Their circulation is decreasing, their advertising revenue is shrinking, and as a result they’re losing talent. They’re laying off people all over the place and they’re being forced to cut back on their coverage. We want and need and thrive on coverage - good and bad. I don’t care if a blogger writes badly about us, I just want them to write. We need the coverage.

Third, I actually felt that there was more talent in the blogosphere. It's proven true when you read the collective blog posts about a subject versus a newspaper [article] there’s more analysis. You learn things from the blogosphere. Like you writing an article with your dad who was there Year One. That will be of great interest because here you’re a woman who loves the team and you probably went to games early on. You won’t get that kind of writing or reporting or blogging from traditional media.

So all of those things led me to [the idea that] this is important, might as well lead. I’ve been an advocate with the league and with the other owners, and I’ve worked with
Eric [McErlain] on creating the blogger’s bill of rights. I thought we had a very, very good experience during the year.

CC: It seems to have worked, especially here in DC. You could say that the Caps blogosphere is one of the larger and more active in the league compared with the more traditional “hockey towns” like Toronto, Detroit, etc. What do you think that says about DC as a hockey town?

TL: DC is a hockey town – it’s just not a Caps hockey town. That’s one of our challenges. It’s ironic. Take DirecTV; the DC/Maryland/Virginia area is one of their best, fastest growing subscription bases. People are paying money to watch lots of out of town hockey on DirecTV. And we see it when we play some teams that their embedded fan bases are huge. Our job is to find a way to get those people first in the building, and second to get them to become passionate Caps fans.

There’s a woman who is a longtime season ticket holder. She loves the Caps, her kids play hockey in Reston, and she told me that 40 games a year I am going to be the most avid Caps fan. But when Detroit comes to town I’m wearing my Detroit jersey. I grew up there, my mom grew up there, we grew up going to games and I love Detroit. So you’ll have my business, but don’t get mad at me when you see me cheering for Detroit when we play them.

And that’s what we have – we have a good hockey market, but we could make it a better Caps market.

CC: So many people will say that the best marketing tool is a winning record...

TL: You know, I’d really like to say that’s right. That’s instinctively, absolutely correct. My
blog post of the other day...I still haven’t gotten good answers. What I mean by that is just that we went to the Stanley Cup Finals and [that year] we played the Bruins, there were lots of Bruins fans. We played Buffalo, there were lots of Buffalo fans. We played Detroit, it looked like it was a home game for the Red Wings. Everyone says well, they sold tickets to them...well, yeah, because we weren’t selling tickets [here]. I wasn't the owner at the time, but the tickets are available and these fan bases are very aggressive in buying tickets. I know if I could sell it out to season ticket holders that would be a good thing because that means someone is committed and they own the seat.

Then people say, well you have to win. Well, okay, we won our division, we had 106 points, we played Pittsburgh in the playoffs...and boy there were a lot of Pittsburgh fans. So when I hear “just win” I go, okay, but we have 106 points, we’re in the playoffs, we make the Stanley Cup Finals which means we won – so it has to be something more than just a knee-jerk reaction. I see it in Florida too, when Toronto plays the Panthers it looks like it’s a Toronto crowd. Maybe it’s something to do with geography, maybe it has to do with not having enough season ticket holders, it might have something to do with not winning enough...but there’s something different going on here than other markets.

CC: There have been some marketing tools that seemed to have worked pretty well this year – hockey n heels, reduced tickets for college students...

TL: We’re being very aggressive and we’re trying lots of things and we have big investments in staff – we haven’t broken the code yet but we’re certainly gonna die trying.

CC: Along the same lines there seems to be a growing partnership between the Caps and the Nationals since getting their new ownership team, the Caps have taken batting practice...

TL: Mark Lerner is a small partner in Lincoln and he and I have become very close friends. Our seasons don’t really overlap so we felt it made a lot of sense to be synergistic – we market them, they market us and we would be “rebuilding” our teams together. We’re also doing the same thing with DC United – it just seems to make a lot of sense to do that.

CC: Any chance we’ll see any of them on the ice this year?

TL: (laughing) DC United or the Nationals?

CC: Either one.

TL: We’d love to get some guys out on the ice to try it – we had Clark throwing out the opening pitch a few nights ago, so yeah. I know that Antawn Jamison of the Washington Wizards has asked me to get him skates, he wants to see what it’s like.

CC: That would certainly be something to see...shifting gears a bit, during the last game of the season we saw teases for a color change of the jersey. Anything you can reveal?

TL: Well...I think the ‘Change is Coming’ was more emblematic of a whole new Washington Capitals. We struggled to get into our new building [in Ballston], we moved in about a month ago and even though the building was up and the guys were skating they didn’t have their locker room. We weren’t in the office yet so that shift is starting. A lot of these new marketing campaigns were going, so there's that. We’ve been very public by saying now is the time to try and improve the team a little bit more aggressively.

You know, I would expect that the rumors that are out there about new colors are probably true.

CC: ‘Probably true’’re not going to give me a definitive on that?

TL: You know, I shouldn’t.

CC: But we are making the shift to the new Reebok jerseys. Are they going to be unveiled before the draft?

TL: Um...I would just stay tuned for a little bit.

CC: Okay, I get it. So obviously the playoffs are going on but the next item on the Caps agenda is the draft.

TL: I would expect this is going to be a really hard-working draft. We have a lot of picks, there might be some trades happening around that time – we’re in the top 5, we didn’t win but being in the top 5 we should be able to get a very good player. We don’t know where else we’ll be picking with Buffalo’s spot. We’ve got 5 picks in the first and second rounds so I’m expecting George will be busy.

CC: Last year there was a behind-the-scenes look at the draft on CSN that was pretty popular with the fans.

TL: Yes, we’re going to work w/ our media partners and the bloggers if they want to show what really goes on.

More with Ted to come as we talk about fighting, free agency, and of course his picks for the Stanley Cup.


Smitty said...

Everyone says well, they sold tickets to them...well, yeah, because we weren’t selling tickets [here]. I wasn't the owner at the time, but the tickets are available and these fan bases are very aggressive in buying tickets.

Oh, that made me wince.

Bad, bad memories. Something about tickets being sold before they were available at the box office... Damn you Abe!


I haven't thought about that fiasco in a while.

Bleu, Blanc et Rouge said...

Very nice Reb!

I also had an interview with Spector the other day on my blog.
Anyhow, VERY interesting, thanks for this!

kristin said...

Wow, what an intelligent, open minded guy. Great questions and a great read. Can't wait to read the rest!

Anonymous said...

Great interview. Nice work.

- EmptyMaybe

Heather B. said...

I'm super impressed that Leonsis took the time to do this. Nice job, Rebecca!

Jay said...

Ted is correct about the Boston series in the '98 playoffs. However there really wasn't a huge presence of Buffalo fans in MCI Center during the conference finals. I'd go so far as to say 95% to 98% of the building was Caps fans. As far as the finals against Detroit goes, Caps fans never had a chance to buy tickets as Abe sold the tickets to Mickey Redmond before the tickets ever saw an on sale date. There's no way to sugar coat it except that for whatever reason Abe sold us out and I know a TON of Caps fans who tried to get tickets and couldn't. So the Finals in '98 definitely cannot be blamed on Caps fans. Fortunately I know that situation won't happen again as Ted surely would never sell us out like that.