- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 20, 2001

The Washington Capitals will have all 82 of their 2001-02 regular-season games televised locally, a first in franchise history and perhaps the strongest indicator yet of the team's surging popularity.

The Caps spent most of their 27 previous campaigns with no better than half of their games on TV and worked mightily to have 64 games shown locally last year, the team's previous high-water mark. Two straight Southeast Division titles, the summertime addition of superstar Jaromir Jagr and the firm negotiating of owner Ted Leonsis combined to make a fully televised slate a reality.

"This is something we really sought for quite some time," Declan Bolger, the team's senior vice president of business operations, said yesterday. "This, in our minds, is a rather significant milestone."

Forty of the games will be on Comcast SportsNet, 23 on NewsChannel 8, 15 on WBDC-TV (Channel 50), three exclusively on ESPN and one on ABC.

Comcast will produce all of the games on its own network, WBDC and NewsChannel 8, with Joe Beninati and Craig Laughlin returning to the booth. This will be Beninati's eighth year and Laughlin's 11th calling Caps games.

Most of the team's business indicators beyond local TV exposure also have shown little letup since the July 11 trade with Pittsburgh that yielded Jagr. ESPN and ESPN2 are tentatively slated to air at least 10 Caps games this season they showed seven last year and that figures to increase during the winter if the team again plays well.

Jagr sweaters continued to sell well before last week's terrorist strikes on New York's World Trade Center and the Pentagon, positioning him to be the NHL's No. 2 merchandising attraction behind Mario Lemieux. Sales are expected to pick up again once the regular season starts Oct. 6.

Also, season-ticket sales now stand at 11,500, about four times the level of two years ago and roughly equal to the Washington Wizards' base. Once single-game sales begin Tuesday, Caps officials hope to peddle enough tickets to register as many as 20 home sellouts, even with ticket prices in some sections rising as much as 40 percent. The team recorded 11 sellouts last year.

The team's Web site, www.washingtoncaps.com, ranks as one of the most heavily trafficked among NHL teams and earlier this year won an industry award as the best-produced team site in all of pro sports.

"We thought we were doing pretty well this time last year, but I think we have a clear difference in the interest in this team," Bolger said. "We'll know a lot more after the single games go on sale."

Long in the shadow of the then-Washington Bullets and now Wizards under the previous ownership of Abe Pollin, the Caps are still battling the Wizards when it comes to local TV exposure. The two teams play on the same day 28 times this season, and though the Wizards' TV schedule is not yet set, Comcast is clearly betting on the on-court return of Michael Jordan the Caps will play on NewsChannel 8 or WBDC on all but eight of those dates.

The majority of Washington TV households get all three stations, but Comcast, since it's a dedicated sports station, is seen as the most desired slot.

"It's always a juggling act to get everything on that you want," said David Nevins, president of Bethesda-based Comcast. "But we are absolutely sold on the Caps."

Recent success and Jagr, however, are not the only reasons for the bullishness among Comcast, incoming corporate sponsors and new ticket holders. The Washington area has quietly become one of the country's better markets for hockey viewership. Even though the Caps ranked just 20th among NHL teams in average attendance and the team again flamed out in the first round of the playoffs, local viewership of the Stanley Cup finals ranked ninth best in the nation even topping the hockey strongholds of New York and Minneapolis.

"This is a team that continues to step forward and be a real example for other clubs," said Dean Bonham, a Denver-based sports marketing executive who often works with NHL teams. "There was already a base in place to move forward and show some growth, but with Jagr now on board, it could really take off."

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