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Ted Leonsis: The New Approach to Sports PR

By Wesley Vaughn

Ted Leonsis’ sports franchises compete with opposing teams on the court and on the ice throughout their respective seasons, but even though they belong to two different professional sporting leagues, they each share a common competitor: the local newspaper.

For Leonsis, who is the majority owner of the Washington Wizards of the NBA and the Washington Capitals of the NHL, that newspaper is the Washington Post.

Speaking to the editors of The Post , he warned, “I think it’s something that you need to internalize: that we’re our own media company.”

Both the Wizards and the Capitals now employ personnel to produce their own video and radio programming and bloggers to create original online content. In addition, Leonsis regularly updates his own blog, as well as his Twitter and Facebook accounts.

“I think this new media is like oxygen. Get used to it,” he said, again speaking to The Post. “I think that there is no more steering wheel in the hand of The Washington Post.”

For a newspaper that in 2009 had to cut its daily business section and search for voluntary staff buyouts, having its stronghold as the major source for D.C. professional sports threatened is a gut shot. But, losing the beat to the beat itself, now that is just crushing.

Recognizing that this battle is waged online, Leonsis has already taken steps to conquer Google.

“When someone goes to find out something about me or a team or a player, and they go to Google and they type that in, I want to learn how to get the highest on the list, and I’ve done that,” he said. “I don’t want The Washington Post to get the most clicks. I want the most clicks.”

Fans and followers can’t expect hard-hitting pieces or critical editorials from the team-employed media members. However, Leonsis’ unique involvement offers something no normal sports media can provide. That is a personal relationship with the owner, which includes honesty, explanations and apologies directly from the front office.

“When we make a mistake, I try to own up to it on my blog. When there is something good, I try to communicate it on my blog,” he wrote in a January blog post. “Transparency has kind of set us free. It is liberating. I trust that people empathize and know that we will try to do what is right.”

Demonstrating his close connection to fans, Leonsis answered e-mail requests for more Dippin’ Dots flavors and cup holders on urinals in the Verizon Center Arena.

Both stories were handled and covered internally; this effectively created a two-way street between fans and the front office. Without the media as middlemen, Leonsis has minimized the chance of negative coverage.

The response from fans on blogs and in Web comments has been nothing short of positive, even though the Wizards have struggled this year.

This PR strategy is only possible with the resources that Leonsis indeed possesses, but there are many other sports franchises that most certainly have the capability of following his lead. Sports PR practitioners must salivate over the thought of working for an owner such as Leonsis. He understands the industry, plays a supporting role and puts a friendly face on his franchises.

Most sports owners have refused to become public figures and have not realized that the local newspaper doesn’t have to be a barrier to reach fans. Leonsis’ methods could be the advent of a new approach to sports PR, one in which teams act as their own news media.

The implications for sports journalists are not so dreamy – much more nightmarish, really. Newspapers continue to look for financial support, while sports teams can begin to build their own media empires.

“I used to live in mortal fear about what you would write,” Leonsis told The Post in a televised talk. “Now, I don’t care.”

Ironically, in the same city and in regards to the same newspaper, Washington Redskins Owner Dan Snyder is suing for libel. Maybe other owners haven’t read the memo yet.

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