A Sports Management Experiment

Back in early April, the Washington Wizards fired GM, Ernie Grunfeld; most Wizards fans – there are still a few of them around – figured it was about time.  Then, the Wizards either did not or could not find a GM to replace Grunfeld; they went through the Draft and through free agency with an Acting GM – the guy who was Grunfeld’s second-in command.  Yesterday, after more than 100 days in limbo, the announcement came about the new regime in Washington.  Let me tell you what the change is and then get to what it may mean.

The Wizards are owned by an entity called Monumental Sports and Entertainment.  Ted Leonsis is the major domo there.  The Washington Capitals also come under this umbrella as do some other sporting properties.  Yesterday’s announcement was a reorganization of not just the Wizards’ front office but all Monumental Sports and Entertainment.

  • They have created something they will call Monumental Basketball under that umbrella entity.  Monumental Basketball will be comprised of the Wizards, the Mystics (WNBA), the Capital City Go-Go (G-League) and District Gaming (the NBA2K video game team participating in esports).
  • They named Tommy Sheppard – the guy who has been the Acting GM for the last 3.5 months – as the GM of this new Monumental Basketball entity.  Joining him will be Sashi Brown who has NFL executive credentials as the chief planning and operations officer, Daniel Medina as the chief of athlete care, John Thompson III as leader of “athlete development and engagement” and Sashia Jones who has been with the Mystics as head of community relations.

[Sashi Brown’s “NFL executive credentials” include being the GM of the Cleveland Browns for almost two seasons while the Browns’ record sunk to 1-27.]

This is a new organizational structure for an NBA franchise; Ted Leonsis comes from the corporate world and has done lots of things “differently” over the course of his career in that world along with his time in the sports world.  Leonsis said that he had spoken with lots of folks over the past 3 months about what to do with the Wizards’ organization.  Here is an interesting quotation:

“The most interesting conversations I was having was with people with the league.  The leagues are now being filled with executives leading basketball operations that came from business.  So, I said, ‘Why can’t we do both?’  Why can’t we make big investments and go deep in basketball and then bring people into that tangential experience, but they’re really, really smart and they add a lot of value?”

Well, since no one has tried that before, that ultimate question has no answer yet.  Moreover, it may not have an answer for several years as one sees how the fortunes of the multiple entities under Monumental Basketball perform vis á vis their peers.  Leonsis heralds the diversity of this management team – in terms of race, gender and background expertise – as an asset for Monumental Basketball that is not present elsewhere.  Time will tell if that asset provides tangible returns or if that asset is only rhetorical.

Fans and local commentators tend to see this move as a plus.  After all, the standard NBA model of hiring a GM who hires a coach and letting those guys run the show the way they see fit has not worked at all for the Wizards.  The last time the Wizards – or the Bullets before the team changed its name in 1996 – ever advanced beyond the first round of the NBA Playoffs was in 1978/79.  Leonsis took control of the team after the 2010 season; since then the Wizards’ record has been 327-396; if the objective were mediocrity, the Wizards would be highly successful.  So, here is the deal as I see it:

  • Scenario 1:  This is Ted Leonsis thinking outside the box one more time.  He finally gave up on Ernie Grunfeld and in the process of making that decision he also began to think about other ways to organize the Wizards and that led him to think about the other basketball entities under his control.  He has had management successes in the past; this is an experiment worth trying; the Wizards may leapfrog the rest of the NBA in terms of innovative strategies.
  • Scenario 2:  After giving up on Ernie Grunfeld, Ted Leonsis tried to hire a new GM but was unsuccessful.  After using Tommy Sheppard as the Acting GM to run the Draft and free agency, he needed to do something more than just naming Sheppard as the GM going forward lest anyone ask what took him so long.  And thus was born this new structure that contains paeans to “collaboration” and “diversity” and …  This is a face-saving move for Leonsis and will quietly be deconstructed over time.

At the MLB Hall of Fame induction ceremony last weekend, there were 6 inductees.  That meant the people in attendance needed the patience of Job to sit through the introductory and acceptance speeches.  However, the folks who organized the day made a symbolic and strategic decision that worked perfectly:

  • Mariano Rivera – the only player elected unanimously to the Hall of Fame and the best closer in the history of MLB – spoke last.  He closed out the ceremony.


Finally, consider this observation by Dwight Perry in the Seattle Times:

“A message in a bottle — dropped overboard by a teen boy in 1969 — finally washed up on shore in South Australia.

“In other words, aimlessly adrift at sea only two years less than the Toronto Maple Leafs.”

But don’t get me wrong, I love sports………