Born on the same day as Elvis (Presley, not Costello), the 43-year-old Leonsis formed a partnership known as Lincoln Holdings, LLC, to purchase 100 per cent of the Capitals from Pollin along with partners Jonathan Ledecky and Dick Patrick. In January of 2000, two new partners were brought aboard, Raul Fernandez, chairman and CEO of Proxicom, an Internet consulting company, and basketball legend Michael Jordan.
Lincoln Holdings controls a 44-per-cent stake in Washington Sports and Entertainment Limited Partnership (WSELP), which owns the MCI Center, the Capitals, the National Basketball Association's Washington Wizards, the Women's National Basketball Association's Washington Mystics as well as the Washington/Baltimore TicketMaster.
Leonsis describes the Capitals not as a hockey team per se, but as a "new media" company. That characterization may appall some Canadians, who believe the NHL should be more about hockey and less about marketing and sales.
Leonsis disputes this notion, however, saying: "You can't have your head in the sand. In most cities, the hard-core hockey aficionados are small. So what was happening here was, we had a loyal group of 10,000 or 15,000 people, who would come to games. In order to cross the chasm and become a popular phenomenon, you had to reach out to the non-hockey aficionados.
"We're lucky in that the hockey audience is the dot.com audience. It's educated. It's Web savvy. It's wealthier than the traditional sports fan. So I've used the Web as a way to reach out to those people and market to those people."
It's working too, according to the Capitals' own figures, which state that, among other developments, almost 60 per cent of their tickets are now sold on line. The Capitals' Web site averages more than one million page views a month and is unquestionably the NHL's best. The site goes beyond the normal bumph to include such features as postgame interviews with coaches and players.
On the ice, the team uses leading-edge technology, such as the XO Sketch, a video-replay device that enables the coaching staff, on the bench, to instantly review a play that occurred seconds before and discuss it with the players.
Nor does Leonsis exempt his players from their role as salespersons.
"I had a player say to me once, 'I'm not going to sign any autographs, they'll end up selling them on eBay.' I said: 'So you mean, out of the 10 autographs you sign, two might end up on eBay?' So you'd rather have two people lose out than eight people be happy, who are fans? That's a lose situation.
"What I've been trying to do is stress [that]at the heart of all of this is the fans. These are not studio games. We aren't playing to a laugh track, especially not in hockey, where the majority of our revenues come from ticketing. So my whole focus is that everyone in the organization become fan-centric -- and at the same time, we'll field a team that's good and competitive and that people can have hope about.
"It's interesting, because when I bought the team, I was told: 'You don't have any stars in Washington.' I said: 'That's not right. We've got the best goalie in the league [Olie Kolzig, the 2000 Vézina Trophy winner] We've got the best scoring defenceman in the league in [Sergei]Gonchar. We have a Hall Of Fame centre in Adam Oates. We have one of the best scorers in the league in Peter Bondra. We have as many stars as anybody. Quit feeling sorry for yourselves.' "
The Capitals, winners of the Southeast Division last season, are doing just that. After a poor start, they're back in first place again. Leonsis will pass on message-board postings to general manager George McPhee, but ultimately, he leaves the day-to-day operations to the hockey department.
Both McPhee and coach Ron Wilson recently received contract extensions because, as Leonsis puts it: "I trust them immensely. I never played professional hockey, so I cannot make any decisions on players. What I can give them is, the budget and the philosophy and then hold them accountable."