A Day in the Life: Inside Ted Leonsis' influence on Washington-area sports
Sunrise is still more than an hour away when Ted Leonsis, the billionaire owner of Washington’s Wizards, Capitals, and Mystics, opens the front door of his Potomac, Md., home. “How many we got?” he asks, eyeing the gaggle of guests pouring forth from an SUV. We number six: a writer and photographer from SI, a pair of Leonsis’s own p.r. handlers, and an executive and a cameraman from his Monumental Network, there to document the proceedings. It is 6:02 a.m. on a Friday when he cracks the first of the day’s half-dozen Kardashian jokes. Leonsis—in a red hoodie and black sweatpants, both affixed with Under Armour logos—has been awake for an hour and a half, during which he answered a few emails and brewed a pot of coffee (typical) and showered and shaved (atypical, inspired by the cameras). His 33-room estate, which has housed Joseph Kennedy and FDR and which overlooks the Potomac River in the rear, is aglow in the predawn darkness as he invites us inside, offering us mugs of our own.
Leonsis leads his visitors up a grand staircase to the third floor and down a long hallway lined with family photos, at the end of which is his office. On a large wooden table sit copies of today’s agenda, plotted on spreadsheet handouts. It begins early—now—and ends late, albeit recreationally, with tonight’s game between the Wizards and the Nuggets. In the middle is a community event centered on the upcoming Winter Classic; a luncheon at the National Press Club; and a meeting with D.C.’s 2024 Olympic bid committee, of which he is vice chair; all amid a series of conversations regarding his other ventures. The day is fairly representative, Leonsis says, before offering a brief soliloquy on his management philosophy.
“I try to be high-bandwidth and try to be prepared so that there’s not a lot of wasted motion,” he says between sips from his blue Sundance Film Festival mug. “I believe that I should work on really, really big things and really, really small things, and leave the middle for everybody else.”
He is opening his life to SI, he will candidly admit later, in part to drum up publicity for some of those big things. SI is tagging along to see how he does it.
6:48 a.m. The small things come first. Leonsis hunches at the computer atop his office desk, index fingers mashing the keyboard as he types out replies to messages in the inbox shared by his three email addresses: a rather public personal account from AOL, at which he was a senior executive for more than a decade beginning in the mid-1990s, and a pair of internal accounts with Monumental Sports & Entertainment and his venture capital fund, Revolution. (A fourth account, built for public feedback on his teams, was abandoned after becoming a sort of talk-radio depository for gripes from a cluster of fans.) He thanks an employee for securing tickets to next week’s Wizards-Magic game in Orlando for a man with special needs whom he befriended 15 years ago. He responds to an 82-year-old grandmother he knows solely over email, to whose grandchildren he has gifted tickets for an upcoming game. He dashes off a message to a media executive about a potential collaboration. Leonsis says he sends all email replies within 24 hours of receipt. He points out that no analog mail, which he handles with similar quickness, clutters his desk. “My life,” he says, “is a constant search for white space.”
Most days follow a similar routine. Leonsis will wake around 5:15, drink some water and coffee, and begin to read a rotation of sites that include his own, The Washington Post’s, and Japer’s Rink, a Caps-centric blog. (He subscribes to print editions of the Post, New York Times, and Wall Street Journal to be supportive, but reads all his news online.) He scours his emails, from which he unplugs at night. Whenever inspiration strikes, he pounds out one of the half-dozen or so brief, staccato blog posts he pens each day, which are automatically synchronized to his feeds on Twitter (38,000 followers) and Facebook (26,000). “I’m a mini publishing company,” he says with a smile.
7:05 a.m. At the opposite end of the hallway, Leonsis steps onto a treadmill to begin his morning workout. His wife, Lynn, strides on the conveyor next to him in front of a wall-mounted flat screen airing NBC’s Today. They walk briskly, at a clip of about 15 minutes per mile, as Lynn regales their guests with stories about their home, known as Marwood. This room, mirrored on two walls that reflect the windows showcasing the river valley on the others, was originally a bedroom with a dressing room on the side, she explains. Now it houses three treadmills, an elliptical, a stationary bike, and a state-of-the-art massage chair, while the dressing room features a massage table.
Lynn is the master decorator and caretaker of Marwood, to which they moved in 2011 from McLean, Va. She is particularly enthusiastic about her burgeoning garden and the African and Indonesian artifacts that line their basement theater. Ted “just comes home and everything’s neat and tidy and he’s good,” Lynn says a few minutes later, after finishing her workout. “I think that allows him to be able to do what he does so completely—because he really doesn’t have time. We’re very much in harmony that way.”
Meanwhile, Ted trudges away on the treadmill, the TV now switched over to the NHL Network, well on his way to his four-mile goal. Over the past two-plus years, Leonsis has shed roughly 60 pounds. The workouts, though not new, are a key component of the weight loss. He has pursued them with a renewed diligence, as well as cleaned up his diet to be heavy on fish and lean meats and low on carbohydrates; for a year, he also cut down drastically on gluten. His five to six hours of sleep a night are more sound than they used to be, he says, and he finds himself with more energy throughout the day.
A little over an hour after stepping onto the treadmill, Leonsis disembarks and consults the FitBit on his wrist, which has already logged some 1,600 steps. After some quick work with dumbbells and an elastic band, he’s back down the hall and at his desk for another round of emails, 34 of which have arrived since last check, before ducking out for his morning’s second shower.
8:47 a.m. Leonsis, now refreshed and clad in a navy blue suit, strolls back into his office, where his posse awaits. “No wonder the Kardashians are insane,” he says. He has eaten his first food of the day: a banana. He heads downstairs to ground level to chat with Lynn while fastening an Olympic Unity pin to his blazer, then kisses her goodbye and heads downstairs, past a pair of poofy-maned zebra rugs, and into his 10-car basement garage, which currently houses a mere seven vehicles. His driver, Stephen, pulls a sandy-colored Escalade out of its space. “By having someone drive me, [the car has] become like an office,” Leonsis had explained earlier. “I’ll take things to read. I’ll schedule calls. It extends the day. I have found it to be a real productivity aid.”
Today’s first destination: a school in Southeast D.C., where he and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman will christen an outdoor sport-court rink that has been refurbished in conjunction with the Capitals’ hosting the Winter Classic on New Year’s Day. Sitting in the left middle seat, Leonsis places a red-cased iPhone 6, an iPad in a Revolution-themed cover, and an old, gray Verizon LG flip phone on the floor to his right. In the cupholder is a bottle of Propel. Leonsis’s daily goal is to drink at least 72 ounces of water. He notes that he and his driver recently passed an employment anniversary. “Yep, 15 years,” Stephen says. “A long time."
8:59 a.m. Leonsis makes the day’s first phone call, to an executive at a company of which he is a board member. It lasts some 10 minutes, with jargon flying about CEOs and valuations and investment levels as the Escalade cruises toward the George Washington Memorial Parkway. When it’s done, Leonsis pecks away at the email on his iPhone. He has 33 new messages, including one from a man named Michael, whom he first befriended as an underprivileged child and who now has a family of his own. He has written to tell Leonsis about his family buying its first Christmas tree together. Leonsis is overjoyed.
He pops an Altoid into his mouth, then reflects on the “head-down nation” America is becoming as he and so many others live through their smartphones. “I helped create the addiction,” he says, referring to his time at AOL, “so I know of what I speak.” This prompts an ad hoc exploration of the printing press’s butterfly effect on society: Gutenberg’s invention created a society of readers, which led to the wide spread of spectacles. Those helped beget the telescope, which Galileo used to begin the case against the geocentric model of the universe. The telescope’s inversion became the microscope, which led to the discovery of microbes in water, which scared many away from bathing. Then came the cleaning agents for water, which led to increased bathing, then recreational swimming and bathing suits, and eventually bikinis, which helped change social attitudes regarding sexuality. “Big things and little things,” he concludes.
9:37 a.m. As the Escalade cuts through Washington on I-395, with a phone call to a baseball executive friend in the books, Leonsis points out the cranes along the city’s Southwest quadrant. He begins offering part of his Olympics pitch—namely the desire to leave behind beaches and housing in the downtrodden Southeast—before circling back to the ongoing construction outside the window. “Cranes are a sign of vibrancy in a community,” he says. “It’s amazing the ripple from something symbolic like that.” He checks his iPhone again, satisfied that he has already received a follow-up on his morning’s first call.
9:47 a.m. The car pulls up outside Watkins Elementary School, where a light rain has begun to fall. Leonsis reads an email from a woman who has designed a sort of Snuggie shawl that she would like to sell at the Winter Classic. Leonsis lets her know that all such branding and merchandizing must be done much further in advance, but asks her for one anyway and forwards the message to his 26-year-old son, Zach. (Leonsis’s 22-year-old daughter, Elle, lives in London.) He reads another email and celebrates “a third crisis averted,” then prepares to step outside. He asks if anyone has an umbrella before jokingly requesting Stephen hold it over him. “Like P. Diddy,” he explains.
10:20 a.m. Leonsis steps to the dais at one end of the blue rink, shielded from the weather by a small white tent. The NHL’s Winter Classic Legacy Initiative put $115,000 into the city’s first street-skating rink, which features fresh new goals and boards lined with advertisements, just like the pros. A dozen or so children squirm in metal folding chairs at the front of the small audience, all wearing dark red Capitals jerseys and long, floppy blue winter caps handed out for the occasion. After Bettman speaks about the rink giving children in D.C.’s Ward 6 an opportunity to find positive pastimes in their community, Leonsis offers a personal example from his childhood in Brooklyn. It was at the local basketball courts that he made lifelong friendships and stayed out of trouble, helping set him on his current path. The alternative was to hang out on the corner, where many found trouble. “It was the difference of, like, 25 feet,” Leonsis tells a TV reporter a few minutes later.
Following his speech, before he and Bettman pose for selfies with members of the city’s parks and recreation department, he and the commissioner ceremonially drop a pair of neon orange balls at the rink’s center, and the children begin to play.
11:09 a.m. Bettman joins Leonsis in the Escalade for a ride to the National Press Club, where the two will take part in a Q&A luncheon a short walk from the White House. The two have an easy and obvious rapport, which surely came in handy when Leonsis spent more than two years badgering Bettman to grant D.C. the Winter Classic. Leonsis points out the window to the ongoing gentrification in Ward 6 along Pennsylvania Avenue and segues into how he hopes a successful Olympic bid will help further rejuvenate Southeast D.C. Bettman mentions the changes in Leonsis’s native Brooklyn, where brownstones now sell for a million dollars. “That’s starting to happen here, but there’s this river that separates the community,” Leonsis says, referring to the nearby Anacostia. There were similar problems in East London, he says, before a railway project connected the city. He is hoping the Olympics could have the same effect on Washington.
The car rolls past the Folger Library. Leonsis launches into a story. As a student at Georgetown, he attended an event at Folger featuring William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg. During a Q&A, he explained to them how his parents had been friends with their pal Jack Kerouac back in Lowell, Mass., and that he was working on a paper about Kerouac for an English course. Long story short, Leonsis ended up bringing the two writers as guests to his class the next day. “What’d you get in the course?” Bettman asks. “An A,” Leonsis tells him, and they both crack up.
11:36 a.m. With some spare time before the luncheon, Leonsis retires to a leather chair in the hallway outside the National Press Club’s ballroom. “Time for some email,” he says, flicking away at his iPhone, until the hall is flooded by VIPs looking to hobnob with the owner and the commissioner.
12:57 p.m. Leonsis moves from his seat at one of two head tables in the ballroom to one of three center-stage seats, with Bettman and NPC president Myron Belkind to his right. Leonsis sits furthest from the Stanley Cup, which is propped up on the stage behind them. Bettman jokes that this is no accident: With his Caps having never won the Cup, the owner has to keep his distance.
Leonsis ate only the steak from the luncheon’s offerings, having been unable to eat the salad due to a nut allergy and uninterested in the chopped potatoes. Okay—he snuck a finger’s worth of frosting from one of the NHL-branded cupcakes too. After a glance at his FitBit, he brags to the audience that he’s taken nearly 10,500 steps today. “I’ve eaten that many calories,” Bettman says.
The commish spends the first half hour of discussion as its de facto emcee, interviewing Leonsis about day-to-day ownership realities, community impact, and the economic footprint of the Verizon Center. Then Belkind takes over, peppering the two men with questions handed in from attendees: potential league expansion, labor strife, future Winter Classic sites. At one point Leonsis gestures towards the ceiling and cracks, “I think I’ve been an owner for too long because while the commissioner was speaking I noticed that there’s a light out up there.”
As the session wraps up, Belkind offers a playful jab back. “The last time you spoke here,” he tells Leonsis, “the Capitals were having success in the regular season. And you predicted a Stanley Cup championship. I guess we have that on the record in our archives. So why hasn’t that happened?”
“Because it’s hard,” Leonsis says. The room bursts into laughter.
2:13 p.m. After posing for a slew of photos with attendees, Leonsis and Bettman are escorted by Belkind up a members-only staircase toward his office. “That was painless,” Leonsis says. He jokes that Bettman’s discussion of how Seattle, Oklahoma City, Las Vegas, and Quebec City have expressed interest in NHL franchises will generate sensationalist headlines. Bettman demurs. “You’re at the Press Club,” Leonsis tells him. “This is red meat for them.”
Belkind leads them into his office, where they are joined by Rick Allen, CEO of SnagFilms, Leonsis’s documentary-hosting website, to discuss a possible collaboration between the company and the NHL. Belkind exits and closes the door behind him so the meeting can commence.
2:55 p.m. Leonsis bursts out of Belkind’s office. “Thankyouthankyouthankyou!” he shouts toward his host. He notes that his step total is at 10,634. Belkind walks Leonsis, Bettman, and the rest of the traveling group to an elevator, saying to hit the button for level T to return to the street. Speculation begins over what the T might stand for. Leonsis suggests it might stand for 30, the number traditionally used by newspaper reporters to mark the end of their articles. “He knows everything,” Bettman mutters. Outside, he and Leonsis say goodbye with a hug.
3:01 p.m. The Escalade crawls down Constitution Avenue between the White House and the Washington Monument. A glass of water at lunch, he says, pushed his daily total to 54 ounces. He’s back on his iPhone, emailing away, when a problem arises. He is alerted that protesters demonstrating against the recent non-indictments in the police killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner are aiming to shut down traffic toward tonight’s Wizards game. He looks up and into the distance, gears turning in his head, and asks, “Why?”
3:22 p.m. Leonsis strides into the offices of Washington’s Olympic bid committee on the fifth floor of a new building on Washington Circle in Northwest D.C. A half-dozen bright-eyed staffers line one side of an oblong table; Leonsis and committee chair Russ Ramsey sit at one end. The pair sits rapt as the committee’s bid is outlined: Annapolis for sailing, the University of Maryland for water polo and volleyball, a new stadium for opening and closing ceremonies, marathon swimming in the tidal basin by the National Mall. Most exciting to Leonsis is the construction of the Olympic Village in Southeast, which can be sold to a developer for affordable housing after the Games, and the installation of beaches for volleyball along the Anacostia River, which will also be cleaned for rowing events. He offers one critique: that the pitch is so focused on venues and urban transformation that it could use more focus on actual people.
After 15 minutes, the meeting is adjourned, and Leonsis and Ramsey stand to relocate for a closed-door session so they can, as Leonsis says, “talk Sicilian.” He tells his crew that, with protest buzz growing, he wants to leave for tonight’s game by 4:10.
4:24 p.m. Just as his team begins growing anxious in an empty conference room, Leonsis pops his head in the doorway. “Ready to rock? Let’s go!” Before he even boards the elevator, he’s on the flip phone and making a call to Don Graham about a philanthropic project. The call continues into the car, where he tells Graham, the former Post honcho, that he is headed to the arena for the Wizards game. With the excitement in his voice, Leonsis almost seems like any other fan lurching through traffic for a Friday night of hoops. Then you remember that he pays all of those Wizards, owns the building they’re playing in, profits off of both, and that when his driver pulls into the Verizon Center 20 minutes from now, he will do so through a driveway that leads to a court-level corner entrance, near which he will park, allowing Leonsis to stride onto the court during an empty-arena shootaround for a quick conversation with second-year forward Otto Porter.
With Leonsis’s call done and the car stopped at a red light—thus far uninhibited by protests—Stephen turns backward and holds up his phone. It shows a photo of the rapper Iggy Azalea. “This Nick Young’s girlfriend, boss?” he says. Leonsis confirms that it is. “Swaggy P!” the owner adds, using the nickname of the Lakers guard who spent his first five NBA seasons as a Wizard. “Never played on a winning team in his life.”
4:53 p.m. “One more meeting,” Leonsis says as he enters MSE’s headquarters on the arena’s third floor, walking towards his corner office overlooking the intersection of G & 7th. He sits down at a side table with Mystics coach and GM Mike Thibault and opens a sleeve of graham crackers to snack. Thibault, who took the Connecticut Sun to two WNBA finals, is one of the league’s most respected minds, but on Monday he will be stepping into an unfamiliar role as Leonsis’s surrogate at the league’s owners meetings. Leonsis will instead be at the NHL meetings in Florida—“higher revenues,” he explains later—and thus he is prepping Thibault to act in his stead. They discuss how Thibault is to vote on a handful of issues, how Leonsis most wants to know what NBA commissioner Adam Silver and ESPN executives have to say, and how to best address the team’s attendance issue this summer. Then Leonsis’s phone rings. He steps out of the room for a quick conversation. When he returns, he tells Thibault that it was Lynn. The protesters have prevented at least one person from attending tonight’s game.
5:21 p.m. Leonsis sits at the same table, Thibault now gone, the G Street facades behind him lit by the cycling colors of the arena’s giant outdoor video screen. His assistant, Maggie, pops in to review Monday’s agenda with him. Leonsis slides a piece of paper and a small stack of photos across the table. They show a young boy to whom Leonsis recently gave tickets to a game. The paper is a thank-you note. “Small thing,” he says.
The cracker sleeve rests in front of him. Considering the day’s intake—a banana, some steak, a scoop of frosting, a few Altoids and graham crackers, no coffee since leaving home—Leonsis seems remarkably energetic. He remains affable, still speaking in his usual deliberate, thoughtful manner. He is asked how, after such a long and varied day and with having eaten so little, he has betrayed no obvious sign of fatigue. He considers the question and leans forward. “There wasn’t a thing I did today that wasn’t important,” he says. “People work long and hard... You have to give them their due.”
A few minutes later, after looking out the window to inspect the cause of nearby sirens, Leonsis moves to his desk. He has sent 48 emails so far today. Time for some more.
6:25 p.m. Leonsis emerges from his office for a pregame tradition: an arena walkthrough, during which he can greet fans and vendors and check out whether, say, a ceiling light might be out. He tells the Monumental camera to stay put, lest fans think he is grandstanding, and begins his stroll through the Player’s Club, a plush bar and lounge overlooking the court, before riding an escalator up to the 400 level. Two denizens of Head-Down Nation, a pair of teenage boys tethered to an outlet by their cell phone chargers, sit at the top. “We need more recharging stations,” Leonsis says.
The corridor looks like a high school cafeteria, kinetic with teenagers. Leonsis slips through the first few packs unnoticed until SI’s accompanying photographer begins rendering this important-looking man in a suit conspicuous. Suddenly youngsters swarm him for selfies, one or two giving way to clusters of four or five. “You don’t know who I am!” Leonsis bellows. When one girl turns back towards her friends after her turn, she confesses as much. More selfies, kids calling out, “One more! One more!”, a mother asking if Leonsis will pose for a photo with her son, who is celebrating his birthday. Leonsis swings by the team’s in-house TV studio, where still more teenagers stir behind a glass wall that serves as backdrop. A man in a headset stage whispers: “Ted just walked into the studio. Ted just walked into the studio.” Leonsis looks around the spartan room, where a pair of metal ladders lean against one wall and a few computers line the other, and a producer asks if he wants to appear on air. He declines.
6:49 p.m. Leonsis arrives at Suite 103 with an unexpected guest. During his sweep of the arena’s first level he stopped to chat with a young man in a motorized wheelchair who was riding in the opposite direction. A quick conversation begat an invitation, and the fan turned around to accompany Leonsis, who called out to pedestrians ahead to watch out. “Lisa,” Leonsis says to a suite attendant upon entry, “Damon is gonna be with us tonight.”
Leonsis picks a slice of watermelon from a platter at the center of the room and drinks a bottle of water, pushing him past the 72-ounce mark for the day. He mingles with his son, Zach, and Zach’s girlfriend, Melissa, and mentions how the day has made him feel like a Kardashian. After another chat with Damon, the wheelchair-bound fan, Leonsis boards the suite’s elevator to make his way to his courtside seats. He shares Damon’s story: a student at Montgomery College, he is a Wizards season ticket holder who fractured vertebrae in a fall during a basketball game. Over the weekend, he and Leonsis will exchange emails, with the owner promising to send an autographed John Wall jersey. He also extends an invitation for Damon, his mother, and some friends to watch another game from the owner’s box in the future.
8:08 p.m. Wizards forward Kris Humphries draws a foul with one second left before halftime. Leonsis rises from his seat beside the team’s bench and applauds. It has been one of the Wizards’ best halves of the season—they lead by 20 and have blocked eight shots—but Leonsis has been as emotionless as he has been attentive throughout. Before these claps, his most expressive reaction might have been a wide smile as an older couple danced to “Boom Boom Pow” on the jumbotron. As Humphries prepares to shoot his free throws, Leonsis taps his FitBit and leans over to show a pair of assistant coaches on the bench. Following the final buzzer, he retreats into a court-level lounge for a lamb souvlaki dinner and a single holiday cookie.
9:21 p.m. The game ends in a 30-point Wizards win. Leonsis stands and daps up Marcin Gortat before posing for photos with Wall and Bradley Beal. Leonsis remarks that his FitBit has recorded more than 14,000 steps today. “Can we go home yet?” he asks.
First, there is one more stop. Fans shout their congratulations as he exits the court through a tunnel on his way to the locker room. Inside, head coach Randy Wittman lauds his team’s defensive effort then announces that there will be no practice tomorrow, causing the players to rise from their seats in jubilation. Leonsis claps his hands together and smiles, backing out of the room. “That’s it,” he says in the hallway. “We’re done.” Stephen and the Escalade await to bring him home to Marwood, to Lynn and a restful weekend, before Monday and a new week bring a new slate of things big and small.