- The Washington Times - Friday, May 8, 2009

In December 2006, Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis welcomed a crowd at Verizon Center’s upscale Dewar’s 12 Clubhouse. He was not entertaining business associates or sponsors or even schmoozing with season-ticket holders.

These were average folks, some of whom had never watched a hockey game in person. Leonsis chatted with them. He showed them seats that were available for sale. He let them hang out in a luxury box. It was a sales pitch of sorts.

While Leonsis worked the crowd, marketing officials met with fans in the basement of Verizon Center and peppered them with questions. How can you improve the fan experience? What features would you like to see on the team’s Web site? How would you react if we moved start times to 7:35 p.m.?

Such “hand-to-hand” combat efforts seem like distant memories now. These days, the team practically sells itself. But those interactions, which came about a year after the NHL returned from a yearlong lockout, played an important role in where the team sits today. For team officials, it was important not just to win but also to be able to capitalize fully on whatever success the team had on the ice.

The team is two wins from the Eastern Conference finals because of the talent assembled in the past several years, but there are so many things that the Capitals did off the ice that, in retrospect, seem like strokes of genius.

There was the move of the team’s practice facility to a Metro-accessible, community-friendly spot in Northern Virginia. There was the unveiling of new uniforms that paid homage to the team’s history while giving fans something new to buy. There was the incorporation of red in every aspect of the team’s marketing campaign, to the point that “Rock the Red” is perhaps the most identifiable slogan in the NHL. There was the technological savvy that made the Capitals one of the most blog-friendly teams in sports and one of the first teams to adopt everything from special Web browsers to Twitter accounts.

“The engagement of ownership that there is a plan and that they are fully aware of what fans want and that the community really owns the local teams at the end of the day - that gets a lot of good will,” said John Rowady, president of rEvolution, a sports marketing agency in Chicago that has worked with NHL teams. “And [now] they can step back and let the team do the talking.”

And, boy, is it talking. Energized by the Capitals’ playoff push, fans have renewed and purchased season tickets for 2009-10 at record levels. Unfathomably, the number of available tickets for any game next year will probably number in the hundreds - if there are any left at all.

Credit Alex Ovechkin. Credit Alexander Semin. Credit general manager George McPhee. But credit the organization as a whole for putting the team in position to get the most out of its success.

“The good will out of that is that they go out and they buy a season [package] or they buy two seasons and they tell all their friends they had a good time,” Rowady said. “And it carries from there. The investment pays off in the long term in having devout fans spending money on their sport.”