Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 20, 2022

For Nats Fans, A Reason To Hope

The equinox has arrived.  No, not a day when the sun sits directly above the equator, marking the beginning of either spring or autumn.  A byproduct of scheduling by multiple leagues, Thursday is a so-called sports equinox.  It’s the relatively rare day – thus the name borrowed from the semiannual solar event – when five major North American team sports are all in action.  The NFL is approaching midseason, and since 2006 Thursday Night Football has been a part of the league’s schedule.  Both the NBA and NHL are just getting their 2022-23 campaigns started, with a pair of basketball games and a dozen hockey matchups taking place.  At the same time, both Major League Soccer and Major League Baseball are in playoff mode, with two MLS Cup semifinals on tap Thursday evening, while the Yankees and Astros play Game 2 of the American League Championship Series.

It’s a dream day for a fan, especially one whose interest stretches across multiple sports.  Someone like, say, Ted Leonsis.  The 65-year-old native New Yorker and longtime resident of the Washington, D.C. area will have a particular interest in Thursday’s NHL slate, since he owns the Washington Capitals.  Leonsis’s team is in Ottawa, looking to post its third win in a row and climb above .500 for the first time in the still-young season.  But while the Capitals were his first investment in a professional sports franchise, the hockey club, which brought enormous joy to a city long starved of sports glory when it won the Stanley Cup four years ago, is not Leonsis’s only team.  In 2010 he purchased a majority interest in the NBA’s Washington Wizards and has since added the WNBA’s Mystics and an NBA developmental league team to his portfolio.  He also owned Arena Football League franchises in D.C. and Baltimore during the AFL’s brief existence.  Finally, because all those teams need a place to play, Monumental Sports and Entertainment, the corporation Leonsis formed in 2010 to serve as the umbrella for his increasingly diverse sports holdings, also owns D.C.’s major arena, currently named for sponsor Capital One.

Now comes word, first reported by The Athletic, that a group headed by Leonsis has emerged as the clear frontrunner to buy the city’s MLB franchise, the Washington Nationals.  If a deal comes to fruition, Leonsis, who strengthened his position by adding fellow billionaire and philanthropist David Rubenstein to his group, will join Stan Kroenke as just the second person to own franchises in three of the major North American men’s sports leagues.  Far more important, the sale of the Nationals to Leonsis would surely be seen by most fans of the team as a positive development.

To their everlasting credit, the Lerner family, led by patriarch real estate developer Ted Lerner, were instrumental in restoring the Great Game in our nation’s capital.  Lerner bought the franchise in 2006, one year after MLB relocated the Expos from Montreal and just four years after the team was threatened with contraction, in one of the many ill-advised moves during former commissioner Bud Selig’s tenure.  Lerner developed a strong front office, and once Nationals Park was in place, spent enough money on talent to gradually convince potential free agents that Washington was a destination worth considering.  All that culminated in 2019, when after a miserable 19-31 start the team turned its season around, eventually running the table as a Wild Card entrant to the postseason, finishing the fight with a World Series title.

But there have always been limits to the family’s focus on baseball, largely because they, like far too many modern owners of sport teams, have viewed the franchise as an investment, the functional equivalent of one more piece of commercial property in the Lerner family portfolio.  Fans were reminded of that when the dismantling of the championship-winning roster began not long after the celebratory parade.  This season, the Nationals traded away the club’s principal asset, dynamic young star Juan Soto, at the trade deadline.  Only a couple months earlier, Mark Lerner, the second generation family member now in charge, had announced early efforts towards a potential sale.  Most tellingly, the release cast the decision as about estate planning – Ted Lerner is approaching the century mark – rather than in terms of the sport, the team, or the fans.

Leonsis’s approach to sports ownership could not be more different.  His clubs have not always been successful.  While the Capitals have that Stanley Cup and a long history of divisional dominance and playoff appearances during his nearly quarter century of ownership, the Wizards have often struggled to get above .500, and have never made it past the second round of the NBA Playoffs under his ownership.  But the faithful of both clubs have a favorable view of Leonsis, in part because he has always been willing to invest in players, but mostly because he goes out of his way to listen and respond to fans.  From seeking out fans’ opinions during games, to bringing back favored uniform color schemes, to responding to individual stories of fans in need, Leonsis has proven himself attuned to the needs and interests of the people who fill the seats at Capital One Arena and tune in to watch the Wizards and Capitals on their flatscreens.  Often his talent amounts to little more than paying attention, but it is a skill that most billionaire owners apparently believe is beneath them.

As noted in The Athletic’s report, a sale of the Nationals is not yet imminent.  The team’s long-running regional sports network dispute with the neighboring Orioles could still be a stumbling block.  On that score, Leonsis’s recent purchase of the two-thirds interest in NBC Sports Washington that he didn’t already own presents a potentially convenient solution.  Still, even if the TV rights issue is overcome and the Leonsis group prevails in the bidding, the stripped-down Nationals roster likely faces multiple rebuilding years.  But if the team’s fans have something to look forward to, and, while they’re waiting for the future to arrive, at least feel welcome when they make the trek to Nationals Park, those steps in the right direction will be welcome.  As Ted Leonsis has always understood, it’s the little things that count.

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