This past Monday night, Georgetown alum Ted Leonsis came to speak to a senior Sports Marketing Strategy class taught by Sports Industry Management program Professors Jimmy Lynn and Martin Conway. I was fortunate enough to be able to sit front row for what would be one of the most inspirational speeches I’ve ever heard.1
Following an introduction by Professor Lynn, Ted got up in front of the room with a big smile on his face. He took a sip of water, introduced himself, and began.
Part I: Father Durkin
Ted started by stating what he planned to speak about. He wanted to convey the importance of hard work, success, and giving back. He was going to tell us his life story and then, he promised, he’d get around to talking about sports2.
Ted was born in Brooklyn, NY to Greek immigrant parents in 1957. His first business venture was lawn mowing. To Ted, it was simple. He wanted to be the best lawnmower, and the way to be the best lawnmower was to offer something that his competitors didn’t. Ted researched how to cut lawns the “Wembley Way”, like they did on the grass courts at Wimbledon.
One day, after cutting a man’s lawn, Ted was asked if and where and he’d be attending college. Ted’s financial restrictions meant his decision on college was still uncertain, and his high school guidance counselor told him he wasn’t “college material.” The man, a Georgetown graduate, encouraged Ted to attend his alma mater.
Ted arrived at Georgetown University in the fall of 1973; it was the first time he’d ever stepped foot on campus. In Jesuit tradition, Ted was given a mentor, Father Joseph Durkin, who helped Ted realize his potential.
Before the bicentennial summer of 1976—the year before Ted graduated—he had heard that 50 million people would be visiting D.C. that summer to celebrate our nation’s 200th year anniversary. Ted decided he was going to capitalize on the mass of people invading our nation’s capital. He decided to sell red, white and blue snow cones.
He and his friend took to the streets and introduced variable pricing. They charged $0.50 for a snow cone if it was less than 90 degrees that day, $1.00 if it was between 90 and 100, and if it was over 100, price was negotiable based on how badly the customer needed to cool off. The business was an overwhelming success—to this day, Ted says, it yielded his greatest profit margin of any commercial venture.
Ted told us that Georgetown taught him the importance of balancing work and play. He worked harder than anyone in his class, but still found time to party with friends.3 During his time at Georgetown, Ted had to complete a thesis on an original idea he had. He decided to write a computer program for finding information on library books—a very novel concept at the time. Ted’s program and thesis was well-received, and he returned home to enter the workforce after graduating top in his class.
Part II: The List
Foreseeing the money to be made in the computer frontier, Ted started working at Wang Laboratories. By the age of 26, he sold LIST (Leonsis Index to Software Technology) for $67 million. A mere five years removed from college, Ted came to the startling realization that he was a multimillionaire. He told himself that he had “won.” He’d received fortune and acclaim for his hard work, but didn’t know where to go from there. After all, he was still in his mid-20’s.
In 1983, Ted was aboard an airplane that made an emergency crash landing. When the plane was experiencing problems and it occurred to Ted that he’d possibly have only minutes to live, he began praying and rethinking his life. He thought about what really mattered to him—what he loved, what he was going to miss, and what he was going to leave behind.
After Ted ultimately survived the crash landing, he made a list4 of 101 things he wanted to do before he died, so that next time he was in a situation where he might not be so lucky, he’d have meaningful memories to leave behind.
Ted carefully constructed a list of the 101 things most important to him. It included, among others, “own a sports franchise,” “sail around the world,” and “change someone’s life through a charitable act.” Today, Ted has crossed off 83 of the 101 items on the list and is passionately pursuing the final 18. The list, Ted told us, has been the driving force behind his success in life.
Part III: Chillin’ with Obama
Ted served as an executive at AOL from 1993 to 2006. For the majority of his tenure at AOL, it was the biggest and most profitable company in the world. He purchased the Washington Capitals in 1999 and the Wizards in 2010. He is the founder and vice chairmen of Monumental Sports & Entertainment, a group that together owns the Caps, Wizards, and WNBA’s Washington Mystics, as well as the Verizon Center and George Mason’s Patriot Center.
One day, Ted received a call from President Barack Obama, who expressed interest in bringing his family to a Mystics game. Ted jumped at the opportunity to entertain our nation’s president for three hours, and quickly made arrangements.
As they watched the game together, Ted made a remark that it was his childhood dream to be president of the United States. Obama smiled and responded that it had always been his dream to own an NBA team. Two of the most important, influential men not just in D.C., but in America, were sitting together, taking about the sport they both loved. To this day, Ted admits it was his most memorable experience in sports.
Ted finished his talk by talking about happiness—how he achieves happiness in his life & what he believes makes a happy person. He mentioned longevity (live long and prosper) as well as the importance of empathy and self-expression.
He then wrapped up his talk and agreed to field a few questions, the most notable of which was a simple six-worder: “How do you do it all?” Ted smiled again, as he had been doing all night. He then stressed the importance of efficiency and time management. He said he sleeps six hours every night and doesn’t waste time on TV or Facebook, a life-rule I’ve come to find is easier said than done.
Ted then thanked us for listening, and walked out to a round of applause.
Georgetown University Class of 2016
2 SPORTS! https://www.google.com/search?um=1&hl=en&newwindow=1&rlz=1C1LENP_enUS494US499&biw=1600&bih=799&tbm=isch&sa=1&q=sports&oq=sports&gs_l=img.3..0l10.10322.10876.0.10918.104.22.168.0.0.0.79.322.214.171.124…0.0…1c.1.8.img.0lwKt8aTZPE#imgrc=YgQq9Dna4gCSKM%3A%3BbCUcSOpE0SZKDM%3Bhttp%253A%252F%252Fsports.pppst.com%252Fbanner_sports.gif%3Bhttp%253A%252F%252Fsports.pppst.com%252F%3B709%3B385
3 One night, Ted attended a party at a friend’s house where Michael Douglas and Jack Nicholson were guests of honor. Douglas ended up meeting and falling in love with a girl in Ted’s class, 19-year-old Diandra Luker. The two married in 1977 and divorced 23 years later.