National Press Club

Wizards, Caps owner seeks to give back to D.C.

May 21, 2010 | By Mark Schoeff Jr. |

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Like other owners of professional sports teams, Ted Leonsis got into the game to win. For him, though, victory involves more than beating an opponent on the ice or the court.

“I want to bring our city closer together,” said Leonsis, who owns the Washington Capitals hockey team and will soon assume control of the Washington Wizards basketball team. “I’d like to give back to the community.”

It’s a philosophy based on a “double bottom line” that the technology entrepreneur and executive outlined at a Luncheon May 21. Leonsis articulates the approach in his book “The Business of Happiness,” which was published in February.

Inspired in part by a trip many years ago to the Library of Congress in which he saw that the only line of the Declaration of Independence that was not edited from its first draft was the one calling for governance that fosters “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” Leonsis developed a formula for achieving happiness.

The other motivating factor for Leonsis was surviving a brush with death as a young man when a plane he was riding in experienced mechanical difficulties and almost crashed. It was “a moment of reckoning,” Leonsis said.

The first step toward happiness, Leonsis said, is to “actively participate in a community of interest.” If people interact with one another, they tend to have a brighter outlook on life. During his long career at AOL, Leonsis was instrumental in developing the company’s instant messaging service, an example of the human connectivity that he emphasizes.

He also says that people should strive for “high levels of self expression,” which he achieves in part through blogging.

Another key aspect of being happy is to understand the experiences of other people, Leonsis said. He makes a point of answering all of his e-mails and mingling with fans at hockey games “to try to understand what our constituencies are thinking. People who tune up their empathy become great leaders.”

A greater sense of empathy leads to the next step in happiness, which involves volunteering and contributing to your community. Finally, the overarching theme of happiness is to pursue “a higher calling.”

With his sports teams, this involves working with the young men and women to develop their lives beyond the game. In business, it means concentrating on more than dollars.

Leonsis said that AOL stumbled after merging with Time Warner in 2000 because the combined entity only cared about cash flow and revenue.

“We started to manage by numbers,” Leonsis said. “Entrepreneurs that lose their calling and lose their belief that they’re in the business of happiness lose their way.”

The best business plan is one that is designed to make the company a good corporate citizen. “It has to right a wrong,” Leonsis said. “It has to activate giving. It has to activate volunteerism.”

His latest venture captures that attitude, Leonsis said. He established a documentary filmmaking company whose first production, “Nanking,” won an award at the 2007 Sundance Festival. His experience led him to develop the Web site, which promotes “filmanthropy,” a term coined by Leonsis.

Visitors to the site can download and share documentaries, helping struggling filmmakers in the process, and contribute to more than 450 charities.

“It’s a prime example of doing well by doing good and meeting the double bottom line,” Leonsis said.

It was not entrepreneurial skill, but rather luck, that led to Leonsis’ latest achievement. The Wizards won the right to make the first pick in this year’s National Basketball Association draft by winning the NBA lottery.

He did not reveal whom the team would choose. He hopes, though, that the selection will revive the Wizards, who won fewer than half their games last season.

“I believe we can get a franchise pick and rebuild the franchise,” Leonsis said.

The Capitals don’t have any obvious shortcomings. They’re consistently selling out their games and winning their division. Next year, they can focus on winning the Stanley Cup, after being bounced out of the hockey playoffs in the first round this year.