After the events of the Juan Soto trade, the most prominent thing surrounding the Nationals is their potential sale this coming offseason.
A number of suitors have appeared as potential buyers of the team, most remarkably Michael Kim, a private equities investor based out of Seoul who resides in the DMV, and Stanley Middleman, a mortgage-lending executive. It’s looking very likely that the team is going to change hands in ownership before the 2023 season.
On Tuesday, the Washington Post reported that Ted Leonsis, the owner of the Capitals, Wizards, and Mystics, was seriously in talks to add the Nationals to his portfolio. The media mogul came the same day as the announcement that Monumental Sports and Entertainment, Leonsis’ umbrella company for his sports ventures, had acquired the entirety of NBC Sports Washington from Comcast. The regional network broadcasts every Wizards and Capitals game, so this is a big move for an owner looking to grab a higher degree of control over the D.C. sports market.
A potential sale of the Nationals to Leonsis actually opens up a lot of doors for the team. Ted and his son, Zach, have been adventurous in their methods of bringing in revenue, stemming from opening a sportsbook in Capital One Arena and starting a 2K gaming team for the Wizards to exploring streaming options for their teams to fans without cable access. Leonsis has always been very pro-consumer in his tactics, and for Nationals fans who are sick of MASN and the antics of Peter Angelos, this might be the best way forward. Leonsis also has a history of denying opposing fans Capitals tickets (particularly Penguins fans), which is honestly pretty cool.
However, I come here today to argue against such a move for the Nationals and their future. While I have confidence that Ted Leonsis can act in the best interest of fan accessibility for his teams, this will not supersede the lack of confidence I have in his ability to properly run a sports team. I can make a number of arguments to support my overall point here.
Running a Baseball Team is Not A Multitask
There are only three MLB owners with majority stakes in other sports teams. This list includes John Henry (Red Sox, Liverpool Football Club), Jerry Reinsdorf (White Sox, Chicago Bulls), and Christopher Ilitch of the Ilitch family dynasty in Detroit (Tigers, Detroit Red Wings). Additionally, Henry’s Fenway Sports Group has control of the Pittsburgh Penguins and half of NASCAR’s RFK Racing.
Henry’s teams have been very successful, with the Red Sox winning four championships since he bought the team in 2002, and Liverpool winning the UEFA Champions League in 2019 along with the 2020 Premier League title (Fenway Sports did not buy the Penguins until 2021). But among those who own multiple sports teams, his success stands out.
The Ilitch family has been unable to replicate the two-team success that deceased patriarch Mike was able to put out, and even before then, the Tigers of 2006-2014 were shockingly unable to capture a championship to match the 4 Stanley Cups the Red Wings won during the senior Ilitch’s ownership tenure. It’s amazing to think about, as those Tigers teams were some of the best to ever take the field.
Jerry Reinsdorf was the owner of the Bulls when they won 6 titles in the 1990s, but the team was in sharp decline when the White Sox finally achieved success in 2005, something they’ve mostly been unable to replicate since. Questionable decisions by Reinsdorf have led to Chicago fans alternating between wanting him to sell the Bulls or White Sox, depending on who’s doing worse in the current moment.
The point I make here is that it’s hard to operate a successful baseball team while participating in other ventures. Henry is an exception to a rule that seems to doom multi-team owners. Ted Leonsis is not.
As long as Leonsis has been owner of the Wizards and the Capitals, the Capitals have always been the better team. It’s not even close. The Capitals were at the top of wins in the NHL in the 2010s, won a championship, several division titles, and have secured several amazing players in that timeframe. The Wizards have middled around since Leonsis took over in 2010 (and before that too), mired in mediocrity and a constant half-in, half-out mentality that has sat with the team since their last championship in 1978, when both teams were owned by Abe Polin (today I learned that Polin and Leonsis are the only owners in both the Wizards and Capitals entire existences). Both teams rarely make the playoffs at the same time.
How would bringing the Nationals into the fold allow things to play out? I have no definite answer to this, but it’s an interesting question to ponder. Three teams is a massive overload for an owner that can’t balance two teams properly.
Leonsis’ Teams Make Questionable Personnel Decisions
Leonsis’ greatest accomplishment as an owner outside of a championship with the Capitals has been keeping Alex Ovechkin in D.C. for as long as he has, and creating a Washington icon in the process. He keeps fan favorites in town for the Capitals, such as Nicklas Backstrom, John Carlson, and T.J. Oshie, and the team has done a solid job with building around them. But what else has he done?
Blaine Forsythe still runs a Capitals power play that has been wildly inconsistent the past few years, and only still has a job because of how good they’ve been historically in the special teams department. Barry Trotz left the Capitals organization after being lowballed in a new contract offer following the team’s breakthrough championship. Since then, the hapless Todd Reirden and recent hire Peter Laviolette have led the team to four straight first round exits in the playoffs. While an infusion of youth led by players such as Martin Fehervary and Connor McMichael has led to an encouraging future, the team still has answers to make for an aging core that has been together too long, an indictment on GM Brian MacLellan and Leonsis.
Ted inherited Ernie Grunfeld as the Wizards GM when he bought the team, and proceeded to let him continue to run the team until 2019, when he should have been fired as far back as 2013. 16 years in DC, and only 3 playoff series wins. Ouch. Making decisions like drafting Jan Vesely, signing Otto Porter to a massive contract, and trading Dillon Brooks are just some of the reasons his tenure was a disaster.
Bradley Beal just got a massive sum of money when he’s arguably the second-best player on a championship team at best. But I’m not here to lament over the anguish of being a Wizards fan. To summarize, the team rolls around the .500 mark, never seriously contending, but never getting good draft lottery odds.
Is there faith he can keep the Nationals up to date? Maybe Leonsis could have signed Juan Soto, but that also runs the risk of signing an undeserving player to a large contract. Imagine if Lane Thomas was given premium money. That’s the Otto Porter situation as best as I can put it. Who knows if that’s going to happen? History is what we have to go off of.
All in all, maybe Leonsis will be a good owner for the Nationals in the long run. But as I’ve stated here, it’s not wrong to be apprehensive. We’ll see how this turns out.
Stay tuned for a HSHH Twitter space on Friday night after Cade Cavalli’s debut!