Renaissance Man: An Interview with Sports Team Owner, Author, Filmmaker, Venture Capitalist and Philanthropist Ted Leonsis
( Editor’s Note: This article originally ran in the Jan/Feb 2015 issue of Merrimack Valley Magazine )
Ted Leonsis is a busy man.
Most know him as the reigning king of Washington, D.C., sports. His company, Monumental Sports & Entertainment, owns three professional teams—the NBA’s Washington Wizards, the WNBA’s Washington Mystics and the NHL’s Washington Capitals—and the arena they play in, the Verizon Center. He is also leading Washington’s bid to secure the 2024 Summer Olympics, a competition that includes Boston.
But Leonsis says his life in sports is just one of three that he leads. Another involves entertainment, producing documentaries as the owner SnagFilms, an online platform for streaming video that promotes independent filmmaking.
The third involves technology, which is where he made his fortune. He sold his first technology company in the early 1980s at age 26 for $60 million, and went on to create another company in 1986, Redgate Communications Corp., that was acquired by AOL in 1994. Leonsis worked as a senior executive at AOL until 2006.
Leonsis, who lives in Maryland, is also a philanthropist, writer, husband, father and much more. He is also one of the most successful men ever to come from the Merrimack Valley. Raised in Brooklyn, N.Y., by Greek immigrant parents, his family summered in Lowell, where they had many relatives. They moved to Lowell his year of high school and he enrolled in Lowell High School, where his guidance counselor told him to consider a vocational school due to his middling grades. Today, in his bio on Monumental Sports & Entertainment’s website, Leonsis lists among his accomplishments his induction into the Lowell High Hall of Fame, a list of the school’s distinguished alumni.
Leonsis went on to Lowell State (now UMass Lowell). After a short time, he transferred to Georgetown University. The move proved wise, and Lowell’s loss was Washington, D.C.’s gain: Leonsis earned a bachelor’s degree in, graduating first in his class.
Though Leonsis was successful at a young age, an epiphany came later, when he was on an airplane that was making an emergency landing in 1984. He didn’t only want to be wealthy; he wanted to be happy. In his book, “The Business of Happiness,” Leonsis says his business ventures have a “double bottom line” that combines fiscal results with a positive impact on people and society. He spends each day working to make that happen.
Leonsis recently gave an exclusive telephone interview to Merrimack Valley Magazine, in which he described his humble roots and why he credits his time in Lowell for helping to make him who he is today.
What are your memories of Lowell?
I feel very connected to Lowell, mostly because it really was this melting pot and was really a platform from which to pursue the American d. For the most part, there was this ethos that if you work hard, you’ll get good grades, and if you get good grades, you’ll get a good job, and if you get a good job, you’ll be able to make money and prosper. That was what Lowell was about. It was a mill town. You were judged by the effort you put in.
How did that time shape your career?|
Growing up in Brooklyn and Lowell, both my mother and father worked. I was an only child. My mom and dad would come home from work at 6:30 or 7, but I’d get out of school at 3. There were those four hours that I would have to occupy myself, so I would try to do that by doing homework and playing sports. Sports, to me, was this natural outlet. For young men, church and sports were very important. It’s how you built friendships. A lot of people I played basketball with in Lowell I am still friends with today.
You became a millionaire at 26. Did you always think you would be successful?
I worked on a couple of political campaigns while I was in school. I worked for Paul Tsongas, and then on a failed campaign for a gentleman who was at Merrimack College, Robert Hatem. I remember Bob Hatem saying to me, “Teddy, if you work as hard in your business career as you did on my campaign, you’ll be a millionaire by the time you’re 30 years old.” I laughed in his face.
I do think that with a working class background, you can work your way through any problem. The early bird catches the worm — that has stayed with me. I start my days really early. They end really late, mostly because of games. I pride myself on being hard working and humble, being able to be a good listener, and never losing the cultural perspective that you just kind of get ingrained in you in a place like Lowell.
Can you give us an example of how you stay humble?
The other day I had to take a 6 a.m. train for a 10 a.m. meeting. So that meant getting up at 3:30 a.m. I ride in coach. While I’m waiting for the train, I see lots of people I know, some who work for me, in first class — and I’m in coach on Acela. I do my thing and take the 3 p.m. train back. I’m in D.C. at 6, go back to the office and do some work. I got home at 10-10:30 at night. I was incredibly productive, but it was a very long day. I didn’t think twice about it. I did have a couple of people say, “It’s OK to take first class on the train.” Well, why? What, the seat is 2 inches thicker?
Do you own a jet?
I use it very judiciously. I think it’s unseemly to fly by yourself unless you have to. Environmentally it’s not appropriate, and many times it’s a waste of money.
You’ve already achieved incredible success. What keeps driving you to continue?
I am very intent on making sure I leave more than I take. I’ve been blessed with a full and robust life. I have a great family, and the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree. When you grow up in these neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Lowell, you’re kept real and authentic. Whenever you colored outside the lines, you heard about it. Now that I’ve gained experience, I look back and say, ‘Boy, was I lucky that there were these natural guideposts and third rails that if you touched them, the community really jumped at you and watched over you and told you [that] you were messing up.’ I’m constantly reminded of that and always grateful.
Editor’s note: To learn more about Ted Leonsis, or to see what he’s up to, visit his blog, “Ted’s Take,” at TedsTake.MonumentalNetwork.com.