Jordan's partner can fill Net, too

Leonsis sees interactive revolution coming for fans

January 21, 2000|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK -- Michael Jordan's newest business partner -- the America Online executive who owns the Washington Capitals and a stake in the Wizards -- says savvy use of the Internet could revolutionize the way fans interact with athletes.

The technology's potential "changes everything," said Ted Leonsis, who is working to make the hockey team a model of sports in the digital age. "It helps to reduce the barriers that we have between fans, the teams and the athletes."

Speaking via speakerphone yesterday at the Sports Summit, a convention of sports industry executives, Leonsis said he doesn't expect Jordan to be crafting cyber-strategy anytime soon in his role as Wizards' head of basketball operations and a shareholder in the teams' ownership group.

"We started talking about all sorts of ideas. But he said he gained his fame and fortune winning games and wants to focus on team improvement," Leonsis said. "There's a clarity in that."

Leonsis was among officials who joined Jordan on Wednesday during the announcement that the retired Chicago Bulls superstar would become an owner and oversee the basketball team. Later the group watched the Wizards' game from the owners' box at MCI Center. Leonsis had been expected to participate in person at the meeting yesterday but was snowbound.

Leonsis is also president of America Online Inc.'s Interactive Properties Group. Last year, he led an investment group that bought the Capitals and became a minority partner in the corporate parent of the Wizards, Mystics, MCI Center, US Airways Arena, and Washington-Baltimore Ticketmaster.

He also acquired the right to buy control of the company when current majority owner Abe Pollin decides to sell, meaning he will one day control two of the region's five major-league teams, a group that includes the Washington Redskins, Ravens and Orioles.

As owner of the Capitals, Leonsis has wasted no time in pushing the franchise into a direction that he sees as the future of sports. That is a future, he said, that will be global, interactive, and money-making.

He has issued each of his players laptop computers and AOL accounts, and, through the team's Web page, encourages them to interact with fans over the Internet. Leonsis also makes a point of responding to all the e-mail he gets from fans and carries a pager to games so people can contact him if there is a problem at the arena.

He thinks a solid fan base can be built on such new-age technology, even for a financially underachieving franchise such as the Capitals, who play a sport that a decade ago was seen as a hot property but that has failed to live up to expectations.

"It is a myth that if you have a great team everything else falls into place," he said. "The Caps went to the finals of the Stanley Cup two years ago. Over the past 10 years, my team has a better record than the Orioles and the Redskins.

"You have to do both. You have to have a tradition of winning and have an infrastructure that takes advantage of that momentum," he said.

Ultimately, he thinks franchises such as the Capitals can become media properties where fans gather online to swap opinions, learn about the team, buy tickets and merchandise, and presumably attract the attention of paying advertisers.

He views the franchise's young players as "brands" to be developed in the minds of fans.

"Everyone is whining about players' salaries being too big, and while I agree with that based on current revenues, I say, let's build new revenues," he said.

The hockey team is a good platform from which to explore the future of computerized sports, because the demographics of the sport mesh nicely with computer users.

He thinks sports have to keep a wary eye on the proliferation of online gambling, something that can damage the credibility of the games. And he is unsure about Webcasting games over the computers -- something television networks that now own broadcast rights surely would oppose.

"The [Webcasting] future is a long way off. But some aggressive owner 10 years from now may say, `Why do I need a league? Why don't I just get 10 other teams and go alone?' I don't agree with that. I think the league model has served us well," he said.

"But whenever you have a tectonic shift in technology, things will get shaken up," he said.

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