The media entrepreneur and sports team owner speaks with SMPA Director Frank Sesno about shifting industries, education and the business of happiness.
By Brittney Dunkins
Every D.C. sports fan’s favorite businessman Ted Leonsis, the majority owner of the Washington Wizards, Mystics, Capitals and the Verizon Center, sat down with Director of the School of Media and Public Affairs Frank Sesno for “A Contact Sport: Leadership, Media and the Competitive Edge” on Monday.
Mr. Leonsis discussed the role of education and technology in shifting industries, the importance of philanthropy and his dedication to being a lifelong “student of happiness” during the Conversation Series event sponsored by SMPA and held in the Marvin Center.
Columbian College of Arts and Sciences Dean Ben Vinson III gave opening remarks, welcoming Mr. Sesno and Mr. Leonsis.
“I am a graduate of the Georgetown University and I’m on the board at Georgetown, but I have spoken more here, at George Washington, in the last five years,” Mr. Leonsis said. “George Washington is building a world-class reputation as an important space for new media, technology and social responsibility to come together.”
The intersection of business, technology and philanthropy informed much of the conversation with Mr. Leonsis as he recounted his experiences growing up as the son of Greek immigrants in Lowell, Mass.
“The guidance counselor at my high school told my mother and father that they should save their money and I shouldn’t go to college,” Mr. Leonsis said.
Ignoring this advice, he attended Georgetown University on scholarship and sold his first company at the age of 25.
Mr. Leonsis went on to serve in multiple executive roles at America Online (AOL) and has invested in Google, AOL, Groupon and more than 20 other companies.
He was also a producer on the documentary “Nanking,” released in 2007, which won Emmy and Peabody awards.
The success of the film was juxtaposed with a lack of support from the distribution community in showing the film. Mr. Leonsis explained that of the 30,000 movie screens in the U.S. only 500 are dedicated to showing documentary films, this sparked a desire to serve artists and showcase smaller films, which led him to found Snagfilms.
The four-year-old company, which deals in what he has dubbed “film-anthropy,” has become the leading online distributor of independent and documentary films.
It houses 8,500 films in its digital library and screens 40 million to 50 million movies a month and through offers oppportunities for users to donate. These donations have supported 500 charities .
“This is a double-bottom-line business,” he said. “If you want to make movies, of course, you want them to sell tickets or to be bought by a network and get good ratings, but you’d also like the films to have a higher calling, to shine a light on a tough subject and activate charitable giving.”
According to Mr. Leonsis, the double bottom line is a call of responsibility for all businessmen and businesswomen to adapt to the changing digital landscape and serve the community.
“It’s a real business, but we are doing something socially responsible and supporting artists,” he said. “Those are the kinds of businesses that people of the next generation will want to add value to.”
Digitizing content was a natural step for Mr. Leonsis, who embraced new media early in his career.
“You hear people say, ‘I’m not on Twitter, I don’t use Facebook, I don’t blog, I don’t get it,’ and you should say, ‘It’s like oxygen, you should get use to it,’” Mr. Leonsis said.
At AOL he was a part of many successful initiatives including the development of AOL Instant Messenger (AIM).
“The god children of AOL are Twitter, Facebook and others,” Mr. Leonsis said. “We were the first to use status messaging, that was an initial feature of AIM,” he said, adding that Twitter uses 140 character limits today just as AIM did.
In addition to using social and digital media to enhance the economy, Mr. Leonsis also espoused the power of a liberal arts education in shaping modern businesses.
“Most small businessmen are liberal arts majors,” he said. “They’re close to their market, and they’re independent thinkers.”
He added that due to a reliance on algorithms in modern business, major companies tend to live by one rule: He who has the most math majors will make the most profit.
“I want you to know that if you are a liberal arts major you’re going to get a good return on your investment, but it wouldn’t hurt to take a couple of math classes,” Mr. Leonsis deadpanned.
He added that companies with teams that combine math and engineering skills with liberal arts skills are gaining the most scale.
However, for all of his advice on building strong businesses, Mr. Leonsis admitted that he has not made a penny in profit on his investment in the teams. Though the company has appreciated in his favor, the draw to the deal was more than financial.
Mr. Leonsis initially passed on owning Washington’s sports teams, but it’s the one deal he couldn’t ultimately pass up—after a little good advice from his wife.
“My wife said to me, ‘What if you get 99 things checked off your bucket list and you never own a team, would you die happy?’” he said.
Mr. Leonsis’ bucket list was the result of an evaluation of his priorities in the 1980s, but as he explained, it boils down to a shift from an achievement-centered life to a focus on happiness.
“I wanted to become a student of happiness,” he said. “It’s been wonderful to spend this part of my life realizing that if you’re happy you can be successful, but if you’re successful, it doesn’t mean you’re happy.”
“I encourage you to make your own list,” he said. “It’s a challenge to script out the things you want to do, but if you envision it, it can happen.”