- The Washington Times - Friday, February 23, 2001

The NHL, long thought an inferior competitor to the NBA, has overtaken its winter sports rival in average attendance for the first time in 13 years.

For more than 30 years, the NHL, despite its then-limited geographic reach, consistently outdrew the NBA. In 1988, when Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Isiah Thomas were all in their primes, the NBA became more popular with U.S. sports fans and outdrew the NHL for the first time. The NBA's dominance continued through the entire 1990s and seemed destined to last indefinitely.

But with less than two months to go in the regular seasons of both leagues, the NHL holds a slight lead over the NBA in average attendance, 16,415 to 16,355. The NHL also now easily betters the NBA in attendance as a percentage of total arena capacity and has fewer no-shows.

Locally, the Washington Capitals are similarly close to leapfrogging the Wizards for the first time in a full season since 1993. The Wizards' average attendance of 15,110 beats the Caps' mark of 14,811 by 2 percent.

The playoff-bound Caps, however, are projecting to sell more than 90 percent of their remaining tickets at MCI Center this season. The hapless Wizards are playing out the string of their 12th losing season in 14 years, making the Caps likely to have a higher final turnout.

"I think the upward direction hockey is taking is now becoming clear," said Declan Bolger, the Caps' senior vice president. "When [commissioner] Gary Bettman came on in 1993, we hadn't been on national TV in some time, there wasn't a huge presence with national sponsors or grassroots marketing. That's all changed now, and it's certainly made a difference in the level of our support."

The reversal in league attendance represents the culmination of several years of attendance erosion in the NBA. Meanwhile, the NHL has posted nearly identical turnouts for five straight seasons. More recently, the NHL set league attendance records for December and January, while the NBA is heading toward its worst turnout since 1994, the first year of Jordan's first retirement.

"This is an interesting situation. You don't want to unfairly criticize the NBA or give the NHL too much credit," said sports marketer Andy Appleby, president of Michigan-based General Sports and Entertainment. "But it's clear the NBA has had some real challenges, particularly the lockout two years ago and Jordan's retirement. And meanwhile, the NHL has clearly gotten a boost from Mario Lemieux's return.

"This is also not entirely a surprise given that with a much smaller national TV deal compared to the other leagues, hockey has had work much harder to fill seats and is much more dependent on that," Appleby said.

The shift also stands as a telling indicator of the leagues' images. Despite nearly identical average ticket prices $51.02 for the NBA and $47.69 for the NHL basketball more often us criticized for pricing out middle income families.

"We used to be the highest ticket price [in sports]. We are now in third place," Bettman said recently. "That is a race I am happy not to win. But with ticket prices higher and higher, you see more an impact of team performance [on attendance]."

NBA commissioner David Stern attempted mightily to downplay the league's downturn in attendance during All-Star Weekend earlier this month in Washington. The NBA will draw more than 19 million this year for the sixth consecutive season, and Stern lauded the number in an age where competing entertainment options such as satellite TV and DVDs are booming in popularity.

"The reality is that we are just getting a good attendance year, not a record attendance year," Stern said in his state of the NBA address two weeks ago. "And if the test is that we have to set a record every year, I can't do it. But that doesn't mean that we don't want to sell more tickets, and yes, we would like to make sure that the people who buy them come to the games."

The Caps last beat the Wizards in attendance in 1999, when the NBA lost nearly half its regular season to an owner's lockout and ticket sales plummeted leaguewide as a result.

Should the Caps overtake the Wizards in attendance this season, it will mark a return to the early years of the hockey franchise. During the Caps' first 19 seasons, they outdrew the then-Washington Bullets in 14 of those seasons, the only exception being 1976-80, when the Bullets were among the NBA's better teams and won one title.

"We've reorganized our entire infrastructure and marketing approach, and the results now are beginning to show," said longtime Caps president Dick Patrick. Team owner Ted Leonsis and his partners, including Patrick, inherited a season ticket base of less than 3,000 when they bought the team from Abe Pollin in 1999. That base is now nearly 11,000.

"We've still got a long way to go, but we're very encouraged by our progress," Patrick said.

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