Friday, May 20, 2011

Leonsis Talks Place of Sports in Community and Future of Game

Today, I had a chance to listen to Caps and Wizards owner Ted Leonsis talk. He is a gifted speaker. He comes across as kind, measured and charismatic. When he was talking, everyone was listening.

Leonsis made some interesting points. He opined that sports is more important than ever to the daily essence of our lives. It is the tie that binds, so to speak (or write). To make his argument, he relied on a few points:

1) Sports is intertwined with everything in a community. From college to work, it’s ubiquitous.

2) Sports offers a public gathering place, which is not otherwise available – at least at that magnitude. Public spaces are vital to a community, and having a public gathering space is good for a city.

3) Sports provides iconic real estate. Think Fenway, Wrigley and MSG, and you think Boston, Chicago and New York. They are identifiers that are so closely tied to a city. They can help define cities (sorry Big Owe/Montreal).

4) The only brands that people want to watch live are news and sports. This was an interesting point. A few years back, there was some concern that sports would diminish in importance from a television perspective. The opposite has in fact happened. Case in point – the networks were going to pay the NFL $4 billion not to play football. Sports brings in serious television numbers in an increasingly fragmented viewership marketplace. This is of course tremendously valuable.

5) Sports is good for the mental health and psyche of a community. When a team wins, everyone is happy and when they lose, a city is collectively down.

Leonsis told the story that after the Caps lost to the Lightning, he stayed home with his family and ordered a pizza. They just didn’t feel like going out. When the pizza guy showed up, Leonsis gave him $40 on a $26 pizza. The pizza guy thanked him for the generous tip, paused, then declared rather pointedly that he hoped the Caps wouldn’t “choke next year”.

Sports touches every part of a community, and helps solidify ties within the community.

On supporting charities, Leonsis said that his teams gave away $12 million to 387 charities last year. He also said they are taking a more analytical approach to analysing that data.

Leonsis also said that when they draft a player they sit him down and talk legacy. The most important thing, he tells a player, is being a great teammate and a great citizen. That’s the stuff legacies are made of.

Leonsis also spoke of the impact of sport on his memories. Leonsis said he grew up poor. His dad, a waiter, would sometimes get tickets to games as a tip, but otherwise could not afford tickets. Then one year, he got his son season tickets to the Jets, and father and son went to games together. They even saw the Jets win the Super Bowl in 69.

Fast forward 40 years.

While working out on his treadmill, Leonsis recounted that the NFL Network was replaying the 69 Super Bowl. Leonsis was overwhelmed and began to “weep like a baby”. His wife walked by, with laundry in hand, and concerned, asked him what was wrong. He proclaimed, “Joe Namath!!”.

He then said he knew what his job was: “My job is to make grown men cry 20 years after the fact”.

On his biggest concern, he spoke about the in-arena experience. It’s more convenient for fans to stay home drinking a modestly priced beer and watching the game on a big screen TV. They don’t have to fight traffic or worry about drunk fans. If you ask around, this is major concern for sports leagues generally – how do we get people into seats when they can stay home and watch the game under better conditions.

Leonsis said this makes him “nervous”.

Finally, while he’s been very successful in business, the hardest thing is winning in sports. By way of example, he said that teams have to deal with injuries, which never happened at AOL (he never lost a programmer to tennis elbow).

Overall, the talk was very interesting and Leonsis was quite compelling.

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