The NHL and NBA owner graded himself Tuesday in an interview with reporters and editors from The Associated Press, and the marks reflect the mixed results and shifting expectations regarding both franchises since he took over the Capitals in 1999 and the Wizards in 2010.
A "failing grade" for the Washington Capitals, but that's grading on the curve.
An incomplete for the Washington Wizards, but it's time to take a step forward.
A "strong B" for the business side of both teams, even though both teams are still in the red.
"When I bought the teams, I said it was a left-brain, right-brain experience," Leonsis said. "Left-brain being about the emotion and the competitiveness and the higher calling of bringing a community closer together by winning a championship and finding some kind of immortality for the fan base and the players."
By contrast, the right brain is the nuts-and-bolts: ticket sales, merchandise, ratings, building the "brand."
That's where Leonsis is a natural, bringing marketing expertise honed while he was an executive at AOL. The Capitals are no longer a D.C. afterthought — they sell out every game and have made the playoffs sixth straight years with three-time NHL MVP Alex Ovechkin.
Leonsis said the Capitals have about 15,000 season ticket holders, a long way from the fewer than 3,000 when he bought the team, a statistic that by itself makes a case for the "strong B." But he also notes that a team that has one of the league's best records in recent years should have success defined whether it's won a championship; the Capitals haven't even made it past the second round of the playoffs under his tenure.
"I have to give us a failing grade, which is rating harshly. ... But we're past now saying making the playoffs makes for a successful season, and we want to win a Stanley Cup and we haven't done that," Leonsis said. "So I have to say I'm failing because that's my and our ultimate goal."
Leonsis inherited a mess with the Wizards, and he's embarked on a rebuilding process similar to the one that brought the Capitals out of the doldrums. But the Wizards were a combined 86 games under .500 over the last three NBA seasons, and eventually the longsuffering fans need to get their payoff. It's worth noting that both team president Ernie Grunfeld and coach Randy Wittman are in the final year of their contracts.
"I believe that we're good enough and now mature enough — John Wall is our most tenured player, and he's still on his rookie contract — but it's the fourth year of the rebuild," he said. "And we're spending right to the (salary) cap and frankly more, since we amnestied Andrey Blatche. ... Now I believe it's time for the Wizards to take that next step."
Even so, Leonsis isn't a fan of the "playoffs or bust" mantra.
"Playoffs or bust, what does that mean?" Leonsis said. "Shut the team down if we don't make the playoffs for the Wizards? We would certainly, if we don't make the playoffs, for both teams we would do our due diligence in a more hypersensitive manner, right? Because we didn't meet our expectations. But the team's not going bust. The fan base isn't going bust. It would just heighten the scrutiny that we have to do."
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