The first time Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis spent meaningful time with Alex Ovechkin was after the 2004-05 NHL lockout. Ovechkin, who had been drafted No. 1 overall by the Caps in 2004, arrived at Leonsis’ house to spend a day with the family.
Leonsis’ wife, Lynn, made lunch. Leonsis was impressed that the Russian superstar, then just 20, helped pick up dishes afterward and brought them to the kitchen.
Afterwards, they played basketball with Leonsis’ kids and a few friends. “He was an unbelievable basketball player,” said Leonsis. (Ovechkin’s mom, Tatyana, is a two-time Olympic gold medalist in basketball). They then went swimming. “He was like a torpedo in the pool,” Leonsis recalled. “I’m not kidding, that’s what it felt like.”
Then the two men sat in the pool and talked. “Alex was making eye contact with me, and really listening,” Leonsis said. “I explained how hard this was going to be for him. The reason we were able to draft him No. 1 is that we were a really bad team. It was going to take a really long time to be a good team. Our goal was to win the Stanley Cup, but also for him to live a full self-actualized life and grow up with us.”
Ovechkin remained a captive audience. Leonsis then got philosophical.
“My belief was that communities fall in love with a young player,” Leonsis told Ovechkin. “And then they often get their heart broken when the young players want to leave.”
Leonsis ended his spiel with a pitch: “Alex, trust me. Let us trust you. Let’s do this together.”
Ovechkin said, “OK.” He was in.
Last week, the Capitals announced a new contract for Ovechkin: five years, with an average annual value of $9.5 million. The deal will take Ovechkin through age 40; should he average 33 goals per season, it will also include him breaking Wayne Gretzky’s all-time NHL goal-scoring record of 894.
Ovechkin negotiated the deal himself, emblematic of the trust he and the organization have forged over nearly two decades together.
“The idea of him playing in Russia, or playing for another organization, just didn’t make sense,” GM Brian MacLellan said. “It was important we brought that tone into the negotiations that we were going to try to make it work. We wanted him to finish his career here, be happy about the contract, be happy about the term, and go out the right way.”
Here is the story of how it all came together.
Ovechkin has been a superstar ever since he stepped on NHL ice. He scored 52 goals as a rookie. Two years later, he was named league MVP. He was MVP the next season, too.
Leonsis was right: it would take a long time to reach their goals. Despite making the playoffs in 10 of his first 13 seasons, it took until 2018 for Ovechkin to help lead the Capitals to the organization’s first ever Stanley Cup. Ovechkin’s impact off the ice was felt well before that.
“When I bought the team [in] 1999, I paid $85 million, and we struggled to put fans in the stands,” Leonsis said. “We had 2,900 season ticket holders in a 20,000 arena. The year before I bought the team they had gone to the Finals and couldn’t sell out playoff games. The following year, they didn’t make the playoffs and renewals were terrible.”
After Ovechkin’s first MVP season in 2007-08, the first under coach Bruce Boudreau, the Capitals sold out the playoffs. “The next season we sold out every game. And we’ve sold out every game since,” Leonsis said. “Now we’re a top-10 revenue team, and a top-six or eight ticket-selling team. We’ve become a destination. Now I would say the Caps are worth a billion dollars.”
The Caps realized the power of Ovechkin by the time his three-year, entry-level deal was expiring in 2008.
“When it was time for his second deal, there was a standard deal template,” Leonsis said. “[Sidney] Crosby had signed a five-year second deal, and we could have done something like that too.”
Team president Dick Patrick had other ideas. In a meeting with Leonsis, Patrick said: “I’m very conservative, and I’m very skeptical. And when you give players long-term deals for a lot of money, sometimes they change, sometimes their love of the game changes. I think there’s something special here, though. So why don’t we do something radical? Why don’t we tell Alex we want to negotiate your bridge contract, your B contract, and your free-agent deal all at the same time?”
At the time, Tatyana Ovechkin was serving as her son’s agent. Leonsis brought the idea to them of a long-term contract, and explained the Capitals were the ones assuming the risk. If Ovechkin got hurt, he’d still get paid.
The benefit of a long-term deal: if Ovechkin lived up to what the Capitals hoped he would be, it would work out for both sides.
The negative: there could be someone else in the industry that gets paid more in that span, as the salary cap grows.
“What I admired about Alex is, he never once compared himself and his deal to anybody else,” Leonsis said. “He never asked to be traded. He never said fire a coach. It’s just a remarkable personal journey for him.”
And so in 2008, Ovechkin signed a 13-year, $124 million deal. It was the NHL’s first $100 million contract.
Sometime in the middle of Ovechkin’s 13-year contract, Leonsis met Wayne Gretzky at an event. The two men sat down and talked.
“Alex is the only player I’ve ever thought could break my record,” Gretzky told Leonsis. “He loves the game. He has such a great relationship and comfort in D.C.; don’t ever break that.”
Leonsis promised Gretzky: “I won’t.”
Soon after, Leonsis saw the 30-for-30 documentary about Gretzky’s trade from Edmonton to Los Angeles. “And I laugh,” Leonsis said. “Because the Oilers won four Stanley Cups but the only thing the owner is known for is trading Wayne Gretzky.”
As Ovechkin’s 13-year deal was nearing expiration this season, Leonsis often joked during talks with other team officials: “They’re not going to make a 30-for-30 about us.”
During the pandemic, ESPN released “The Last Dance.” Leonsis was riveted.
“It was 10 hours about Michael Jordan’s greatness,” Leonsis said. “But also about how they did not feel loved or connected to the team.”
Leonsis didn’t want to be that guy. He already felt like he was on a good track, though.
Because Ovechkin had signed a long-term deal in 2008, teammate Nicklas Backstrom followed by committing to 10 years in 2010.
“Alex not only made the commitment to us, but made it to Nick, then they embraced John Carlson,” Leonsis explained. “Keeping Alex, keeping Nick, keeping John Carlson, building a 20 to 25-year journey with these guys, with Alex as the bedrock, was the right thing for us to do. It’s a wonderful story.”
Backstrom’s deal expired in 2020. He chose to negotiate his next deal himself.
“Nick is very analytical,” Leonsis said. “He sat down with us, and said ‘This is how many years I’d like to play, I’d like to play my whole career here. I want to play with Alex my whole career. I want to play in front of this crowd my entire career. This is what we need to do to win the Stanley Cup, and this is how Alex is going to break Wayne Gretzky’s record.’
“He literally went season by season, of what we needed to do and how he’d have to play, with five-on-five goals and power play. He landed on five years [for his contract]. It was remarkable how the two of them — unlike Lennon and McCartney, instead of breaking up, they were totally in sync.”
Contract negotiations for Ovechkin’s new deal began informally. Ovechkin talked to MacLellan throughout the season. The captain and GM met a few times, often at hotels on the road.
“He’d go back and talk to his family, and a few advisors,” MacLellan said. “Then he’d come back to me and we’d talk again. It went on for quite a while.”
The first discussions were philosophical. Ovechkin wanted to hear the direction of the Capitals. He wanted to know what MacLellan envisioned and what types of moves he planned on doing.
“Then term became important,” MacLellan said. “He zeroed in on five years, and that became very important. He liked the term of five years; he has some personal goals in mind.”
Once five years was determined as the term, the two needed to hash out the average annual value.
“His main goal wasn’t to make as much money as possible,” MacLellan said. “He probably would get a shorter term at a higher AAV if he wanted to go outside [of the Capitals]. Probably could have made more money going back home to Russia, I would assume, there are probably some tax advantages there. We had discussions: ‘Here are your career earnings. Is a higher contract going to affect your standard of life going forward, or is it about finishing your career out the right way?'”
At $9.5 million — just a shade lower than the $9.54 million AAV on his last deal — the Caps and Ovechkin felt like they could keep the team competitive. (That Ovechkin’s contract has nearly the same cap hit it had 13 years ago is an interesting indictment of the NHL; Leonsis says it is a direct byproduct of the NHL still being driven more by local revenues than national revenues).
“We had to get a $4 million player out,” MacLellan said. “You go higher than that, we probably have to move another player out. You get thin quick when that cap isn’t going up. So that was an important factor keeping it at $9.5 [million].”
Conversations between the Capitals and Ovechkin continued as the captain returned home to Russia for the summer. They hashed out final details on the phone, and via text, before finally landing on the deal.
“It was a bummer we weren’t able to do it in person,” MacLellan said. “But we all felt really happy about it. He was excited. He’s an emotional person. I think he was excited about knowing what he would be doing for the next five years.”
— Alex Ovechkin (@ovi8) July 27, 2021
On Thursday, the Capitals held a press conference announcing the deal. And shortly after that, Leonsis was pulled into talks regarding the NBA’s Washington Wizards, a team that he also owns.
“We had a superstar player with the Wizards, he had an opportunity and wanted to be traded to the Lakers,” Leonsis said. “And I was dealing with that as we were announcing Alex. I couldn’t help but self-reflect on what a difference it is. Here’s a great player in Russell Westbrook, played in OKC, wanted to be traded, went to Houston, wanted to be traded, came to D.C., wanted to be traded and is now in L.A. He’s an unbelievably great person and an unbelievably great player. But that’s the difference between the NBA and the NHL, I suppose.”
Ohio gaming regulators ban NCAA player props
The Ohio Casino Control Commission (OCCC) on Friday granted a request by the NCAA to prohibit wagering on prop bets involving collegiate athletes. Ohio sportsbook operators have until March 1 to implement the ban on any wager on “an individual athlete’s performance or statistics participating in a sporting event governed by the NCAA.”
Examples of prop bets include the over/under on a basketball player’s points or a quarterback’s passing yards. More than 20 states with legal sports betting prohibit or limit player-specific prop bets on collegiate athletes, according to the OCCC’s announcement. The OCCC announced the ban three weeks after Baker made a written request to its executive director Matt Schuler, which received support from Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine.
“Today’s decision by the Ohio Casino Control Commission to prohibit player-specific prop bets on collegiate competitions marks a significant step in the protection of student-athlete well-being and game integrity,” NCAA president Charlie Baker said in a statement. “I thank The Commission for recognizing the serious threats posed by prop bets and implementing controls to help safeguard student-athlete mental health from the risks of sports betting harassment and abuse.”
Schuler agreed with the NCAA’s concerns that prop bets on individual player performance can lead to bettors harassing athletes, the solicitation of insider information and attempts to manipulate small events during games.
“I have determined that good cause supports the NCAA’s request to prohibit player-specific prop bets on intercollegiate athletics competitions because the NCAA’s request will safeguard the integrity of sports gaming and will be in the best interest of the public,” Schuler wrote in his decision.
Ohio passed a law in 2023 that aims to ban anyone who threatens athletes with violence or harm from participating in sports gaming in the state. The OCCC estimates Ohio sportsbooks received $104.6 million in bets on NCAA player props in 2023, or 1.35% of the total amount wagered last year.
McGee leaves UGA to be Georgia St. head coach
McGee’s deal is for five years, sources told ESPN’s Pete Thamel.
McGee, 50, was the Bulldogs’ run game coordinator and running backs coach and has deep ties in the state from years as a high school coach. He joins the Panthers after spending the past eight seasons as a Georgia assistant, primarily working with the running backs while helping the team to College Football Playoff titles in 2021 and 2022. He played college football at Auburn and had a brief NFL career as a defensive back, appearing in three games for the Arizona Cardinals in 1998.
McGee also previously coached at a rival of Georgia State, spending two seasons as an assistant at Georgia Southern and serving as the interim head coach for a win in the GoDaddy Bowl (now called the 68 Ventures Bowl) in the 2015 season.
McGee replaces Shawn Elliott, who agreed earlier this month to return to South Carolina as tight ends coach and run game coordinator.
Georgia State is coming off a 7-6 season that included a win over Utah State in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl. The school had postponed spring practices and its spring game after Elliott’s departure.
Judge grants preliminary injunction over NIL rules
A federal judge in Tennessee granted a preliminary injunction Friday afternoon that prohibits the NCAA from punishing any athletes or boosters for negotiating name, image and likeness deals during their recruiting process or while they are in the transfer portal.
The injunction is not a final ruling in the case, but the judge’s decision will likely have an immediate and dramatic impact on how NIL deals are used in the recruiting process.
“The NCAA’s prohibition likely violates federal antitrust law and harms student-athletes,” U.S. District Judge Clifton Corker wrote in his decision Friday.
NCAA rules prohibit student-athletes from signing NIL contracts that are designed as inducements to get them to attend a particular school — one of the few restrictions in place for how athletes can make money. For example, the NCAA recently announced sanctions against Florida State football because a member of its coaching staff connected a prospect with a booster collective that works closely with the Seminoles. The collective made a specific offer to the player, who was considering transferring from his current school to Florida State.
The attorneys general of Tennessee and Virginia argued that the NCAA is illegally restricting opportunities for student-athletes by preventing them from negotiating the terms of NIL deals prior to deciding where they want to go to school. The lawsuit was filed Jan. 31, one day after University of Tennessee chancellor Donde Plowman revealed in a letter to the NCAA that the school’s athletic department was being investigated for potential recruiting rules violations.
In Friday’s ruling, Corker determined that the attorneys general have a reasonable chance of winning their case and that student-athletes could suffer irreparable harm if the restrictions remain in place while the case is being decided.
“Turning upside down rules overwhelmingly supported by member schools will aggravate an already chaotic collegiate environment, further diminishing protections for student-athletes from exploitation,” the NCAA said in a statement. “The NCAA fully supports student-athletes making money from their name, image and likeness and is making changes to deliver more benefits to student-athletes, but an endless patchwork of state laws and court opinions make clear partnering with Congress is necessary to provide stability for the future of all college athletes.”
Anthony Skrmetti, Tennessee’s attorney general, said in a statement Friday that his office plans to litigate the case “to the fullest extent necessary to ensure the NCAA’s monopoly cannot continue.”
“The NCAA is not above the law, and the law is on our side,” Skrmetti said.
Virginia Attorney General Jason Miyares called the win in court “rewarding” and saw it as an extension of the Supreme Court ruling in the NCAA vs. Alston case in 2021, which he said should have put the NCAA “on notice” for its legal vulnerabilities.
“We’re finally getting to the point where you’re seeing real student-athlete empowerment at the collegiate level,” Miyares told ESPN in a phone interview late Friday. “The NCAA in an arbitrary and capricious manner was trying to restrict that.”
Miyares said the NCAA model has gotten to the point where it’s unsustainable, pointing out the billion-dollar NCAA tournament television contract that was signed without the players getting any cut of it. The potential of change to NIL rules that would come with this ruling could be just the start.
“I think could be the first steps of significant change,” he said. “And I think it’s been coming for a long time.”
College athletics attorney Tom Mars, who worked with a Tennessee collective, Spyre Sports Group, on this case, said the ruling could mark the beginning of the end for the NCAA.
“I think this will be one more brick in the wall that is the end of the NCAA,” Mars said. “Short of intervention by Congress, the demise of the NCAA now seems inevitable based on nothing but a financial analysis, as it appears the NCAA is poised to lose all of its upcoming antitrust cases. The cumulative effect of which could make the NCAA financially insolvent.”
“A bad case is a bad case, and they’ve put all their defenses forward,” Mars added. “And there’s no precedent anywhere in the United States that supports their defenses.”
Corker said the NCAA’s lawyers did not make a compelling argument for why using NIL contracts as recruiting inducements would undermine the academic side of college sports.
“While the NCAA permits student-athletes to profit from their NIL, it fails to show how the timing of when a student-athlete enters such an agreement would destroy the goal of preserving amateurism,” the judge wrote.
Earlier this week, Skrmetti told ESPN that he was willing to work with the NCAA to find some middle ground on how it could enforce some of its recruiting rules while the case is resolved.
“If they want to talk about possibilities for finding a workable solution in the short term, we’re always open to conversation,” Skrmetti said, noting he had not discussed the case with NCAA leadership. “There’s no guarantee we’ll be able to reach an agreement, but if there’s a mutually agreeable path forward as we work to get these issues figured out, we’re open to that.”
In an interview with ESPN on Tuesday, NCAA president Charlie Baker said the restriction on recruiting inducements was written because the association wants athletes to choose their future schools based on the best educational opportunities rather than where they could make the most money.
“I also think it makes it enormously challenging, as we are currently seeing in the existing NIL environment, for kids and families to figure out what the right choice is in the first place because an enormous amount of information flows their way that may not in fact be accurate,” Baker said.
ESPN asked Baker if having contracts that the prospective athletes could sign before committing to a school would help ensure that the offers they were receiving were accurate or could provide some way to hold a booster or school accountable for false promises.
“I don’t know,” Baker said.
Since adopting new rules that opened the door for NIL deals in 2021, the NCAA has issued two sanctions related to how boosters used NIL opportunities as an inducement in the recruiting process: the recent Florida State case and one involving the Miami women’s basketball team in February 2023.
The NCAA has struggled to enforce the inducement rules despite widespread acknowledgement and complaints from coaches, players and administrators that offers for NIL money have become a central discussion in recruiting players out of high school and the transfer portal. The rules allow coaches and collectives to share information about a prospect’s potential earning power as long as they don’t make specific offers or promises. Without documented evidence of a violation or cooperation from parties directly involved in an offer, the NCAA’s enforcement staff doesn’t have the power to compel the information they need to levy sanctions.
Plowman, Tennessee’s chancellor, said in her letter to the NCAA that it was “intellectually dishonest” to have rules that allow collectives to meet with recruits and enter into contracts with recruits but prohibit “conversations that would be of a recruiting nature.”
“Any discussion about NIL might factor into a prospective student-athlete’s decision to attend an institution. This creates an inherently unworkable situation, and everyone knows it,” Plowman wrote. “Student-athletes and their families deserve better than this.”
Baker told ESPN that he didn’t think the NCAA was ignoring reality by asking athletes to pick their schools based on academic and athletic opportunities and worry about NIL opportunities after they arrive.
“I think the most important thing here is let’s deal with some of the issues around accountability and transparency and consumer protections first,” Baker said. “And if we then want to have a conversation about other stuff, about how this should all work, especially if we get to the point where we give schools the ability to do more in this space, I’m all-in on that.”
In a separate case about the NCAA’s rules that restrict an athlete’s ability to transfer to a new school without penalty, a federal judge decided in December to grant an injunction. That ruling compelled the NCAA to change its rules to allow athletes to transfer as many times as they would like during their college careers while the case is pending.
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