- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 2, 2003

Life is pretty good for the Washington Capitals after their customary slow start. The team sits in first place in the Southeast Division, star forward Jaromir Jagr is playing his best hockey as a Cap and a return to the playoffs after a one-year absence looks like a safe bet.
Off the ice, however, retooling continues in the club's quest to enlarge its fan base. Tuesday, the Caps will unveil their dramatically reworked Web site, www.washingtoncaps.com. After three years of only minor changes to the site one of owner Ted Leonsis' key priorities the redesign seeks to lessen significantly the time needed to access information while in turn keeping visitors around longer and boosting fan affinity.
Meanwhile, team officials are working to reverse the Caps' surprising sluggishness at the turnstiles. Through 26 home games, the team is averaging 15,483 a contest, 10.5 percent behind last year's pace. That drop, on a percentage basis, is the third worst in the NHL behind the bankrupt Buffalo Sabres and troubled Nashville Predators.
The Caps admittedly have a tough challenge with attendance. The final 2001-02 tallies of 710,990 in total attendance and a 17,341 average were both franchise records, and the 14 sellouts were the sixth best showing in team history.
But with the team again competitive and plenty of ticket discounts available, the Caps have not even approached those numbers from last year. Just two sellouts have been recorded this season, and even if the team does sell every ticket to every remaining home game, it still will fall short of last year's total. The full-season decline will be the first under Leonsis.
"We are still up significantly over year one and year two [of Leonsis ownership]," said Declan Bolger, the Caps' senior vice president for business operations. "It's not like we are battling to get to 500,000 for the season. We are chasing a franchise record."
The schedule has not been kind to the Caps just one home Saturday game in December and January and the team raised average ticket prices more than 14 percent. Also working against the team are a cut this season in team payroll and fan impatience to make a deep playoff run, something that has not happened in the Leonsis era.
"There have been nuances in the schedule, but now that football is over, we've got a chance to take center stage again [in Washington]," Bolger said. "Part of that, of course, involves getting to the playoffs and doing well."
The Web site redesign, similarly, is aimed at creating greater buzz for the Caps. The existing site generates more than 2million page views per month, one of the largest traffic rates among NHL team sites. But user feedback showed washingtoncaps.com to be too cumbersome to easily find popular areas and far too static.
After a six-month reorganization, the site will allow users to reach message boards and statistics two of the most popular areas with a single click of the mouse. Other new features include an enlarged multimedia section and an area where fans can keep running online journals, commonly known as blogs, related to the Caps.
"Every area is going to change frequently, even several times a day," said Brett Robinson, the Caps' director of new media. "That was one of hurdles before, and a key point of fan feedback, that for two and three days at a time, the site looked basically the same, even if we did put in new stuff. People saw that sameness and they were on their way to something else."
The site update and marketing pushes to boost attendance, of course, do not address the much more pressing and systemic problems facing all of pro hockey, including bankrupt franchises and fast-growing labor discord. But upon buying the team, Leonsis said reviving the Caps' eroding fan base was to be the business equivalent of hand-to-hand combat, a struggle that needed to continue during good times for the NHL and bad.
Nearly four years later, little has changed.
"It's a shame the fans haven't embraced the team," Leonsis said. "We are, after all, in first place and the hottest team in the NHL. I will keep plugging, and [the fans] will come out now I think."

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