There is a distinctly regal air about Ted Leonsis these days. He possesses what might be called a Midas Touch for troubled sports franchises in these parts. Even as a minority owning, back-bench influencer for the Wizards, he injected a singular bit of buzz to the beleaguered club when he enticed Michael Jordan to D.C. Plying his owner’s trade in the very sports troubled town of Washington, he’s a bit of a pied piper to the task, seeking to create durable communities of the common-in-their-passion, and as spring cedes to summer in 2010 he’s poised to assume control of what’s long been the most troubled team in town. Folks have taken notice. It’s good — very good — to be Ted right about now.
He’s a newsmaker all right, acknowledged at the National Press Club yesterday as such by virtue of his acquiring both the Wizards and Verizon Center this spring, in the process igniting dreams of a revamped winter sports scene here. Sports fans in Washington in great numbers today wonder: can he apply his Midas Touch to the moribund-for-the-last-millennium basketball team? If he can, Washingtonians will be oh so able to bear all the snow Mother Nature wants to send our way each winter.
What struck me most about Leonsis’ lunch-hour remarks on Friday was the breadth and elevation of his philosophical vision. Yes he wants to win a Stanley Cup, but what he wants more is to foster in Washington a durable community of puckheads, one in which “fathers and sons . . . create a million memories” of their shared experience of their shared passion. Additionally, he seeks “immortality” for his hockey players here.
Anybody not interested in renewing their ticket plan for next season?
(It’s a moot point; the Caps are already entirely sold out for 2010-11.)
Already this most interesting sports team owner has a most interesting task before him in the dawning of his stewardship of professional basketball: namely, naming (maybe) his team.
Leonsis was asked Friday (by a certain hockey blogger in the audience) if he would give consideration to returning to the basketball team its original name, and colors, seeing as how no one in town the past 15 years has expressed any affection whatsoever for the replacement appellation. His answer was fantastically artful and nuanced without being evasive.
He acknowledged getting “lots of emails” about the topic. But then he pivoted to stake a leadership ground in the matter.
“I don’t want to be someone who does, acts to make people like me or think I’m listening to them. There’s so much work to do to figure [this hoops mess] out, and [renaming] would be a part of everything, but it’s not the first decision we have to make.”
“I probably will like red . . . more than teal blue,” he added with a wry smile. “I intend to listen to people but I also think Mr. Pollin made a personal decision, and I want to understand it, and I want to pay the appropriate respect a decision like that deserves.”
In a matter of about 25 seconds Friday afternoon Leonsis answered a thorny question with deft heft, managing to acknowledge the sizable and long-standing discomfort many natives have had with the queer name of our basketball team while simultaneously reminding that the renaming involved no small amount of personal discomfort for the Pollin family. He staked out, and achieved, a higher ground for the populist discussion.
And yet, reading between the lines in a manner frankly Leonsis invited us to, the name ‘Wizards’ and its colors don’t seem long much more for Washington. Were he merely indifferent to the name he could have replied to my question with, ‘We have a perfectly fine name for our basketball team, so why change it?’
In reality, it is anything but. It was fairly forced upon fans here, via a phony renaming campaign back some 15 years ago, locals have never warmed to it, and its licensed merchandise has since its inception sold like snow cones in a blizzard. Don’t believe me? Dan Steinberg has a fantastic timeline and overview of the history of the name change, and the money moment comes when he points out that a Washington Post poll of the proposed five replacement names (Sea Dogs, Stallions, Express, Dragons and Wizards) (I’m not kidding), when set against the options “Bullets” or “None of the Above,” saw 85 percent of respondents choose Bullets or None of the Above.
Yeah, Leonsis has something under branding to fix here all right.
A recent Washington Times poll found 72 percent of respondents favoring a reversion to the original name. One reason there may be such fervor-clamor for a return to the old name: A world championship was won with it. That’s no small matter.
So let ‘Wizards’ die an uncelebrated death, yes, but let it also pass as the new owner decrees: with patience, and respectfully of its progenitors.
There are many hardwood wrongs for the new hoops owner to right, but he’s right to acknowledge that the very name it carries numbers among them. We can leave for another day perhaps the fitness of the name ‘Bullets,’ but should you rank among those who’d have it deemed unworthy for the same reasons as the Pollin family, answer me this: how was so “offensive” a name able to resurrect itself in throwback fashion, worn by MJ himself in regular season games, and race to the top of re-issue sales year after year last decade?
“To me, one of the most puzzling features of the name change and its purported anti-violence origins was Pollin’s willingness to have his team wear (and sell) Bullets jerseys less than a decade later. This was part of the NBA’s throwback program; fans could (and did) buy Bullets jerseys, and the players wore the familiar threads.
“Three times in the 2002-03 season the team trotted out red white and blue throwbacks. Nine times in 2004-05, and six times in 2005-06, they wore the throwback orange unis. During one game in Miami, the PA announcer referred to the team as “the Bullets” throughout. And the Michael Jordan red-white-and-blue top became a huge seller.”
Leonsis himself has spoken of a team owner’s presiding over a public trust with his franchise. Owners are the spenders of millions of dollars on the project, but they’re purveyors over a novel and solemn obligation: the bottom line belongs to these executives, but the organizational identity is very much the collective property of the community in which it resides. This is where the “intensely personal” Pollin family action of 15 years ago violated the public trust. Compounding the problem, a champion’s name was replaced with inanity.
Nothing in the way of a re-branding is happening soon, Leonsis pointed out Friday. That’s both disappointing and appropriate.
This matter requires due diligence and an extra dose of thoughtfulness, and yes ultimately action. Leonsis on Friday auditioned perfectly for the task.