- The Washington Times - Monday, April 12, 2010

Fans of the Washington Capitals and Washington Nationals had a reason to feel excitement heading into April, with one team opening its season and the other ready for the second season.

At Nationals Park, President Obama was on hand to throw out the first pitch, as the Nats opened their sixth season in Washington against the two-time National League champion Philadelphia Phillies.

Just across town, the Capitals put the finishing touches in the best regular-season in franchise history and winning the Presidents’ Trophy for the league’s best regular-season record, gearing up for what the team hopes to be a Stanley Cup-winning playoff run.

However, for Washington fans, the two events provided much different experiences.

Thousands of Philadelphia fans made the trek south for the Nationals’ opener, openly booing the home team and leading to an angry response from the Nats’ core fanbase.

With Washington being the seat of government, it’s not unusual to see fans of visiting teams at venues around town. What is unusual was how many of those tickets got in their hands.

In March 2009, Nationals president Stan Kasten went on Philadelphia radio to invite Phillies fans to come down to that season’s opener. This winter, the Nationals reportedly went out of their way to contact several groups in the Delaware Valley to sell blocks of tickets to Opening Day to Phillies fans — months before the Nationals put the tickets on sale to the public.

All this made season-ticket holders like Greg Mentel of Arlington pretty unhappy with the experience at Opening Day.

“It wasn’t good. It felt like a Phillies home game,” he said. “There is no concern for the fans. The Nats just want to sell as many tickets as possible regardless of who buys the tickets.”

But just north of Nationals Park, the Capitals sold out their 56th straight game Sunday. While Verizon Center had developed a reputation for being a safe haven for visting fans — particularly ones from Pittsburgh or Philadelphia — the team has seen the culmination of more than a decade of aggressively trying to keep the tickets within the team’s fan base with most fans wearing the team’s red-white-and-blue.

Verizon Center “used to be a place where other fans were welcome, and there was nothing that we as Caps fans could do in order to keep them out,” longtime Capitals season-ticket holder Alex Joannou said. “It started with Ted [Leonsis] blocking addresses from Pittsburgh from buying tickets to Caps playoff games. Sure, that ticked some of them off up north, but this is our house. We should be able to sell to who we want to.”

What makes the comparison between the Nationals’ and Capitals’ marketing practices so stark right now is that the two teams used to share the same philosophy to sell tickets by not only marketing to the home crowds, but also to the visitors.

Under the former ownership of Abe Pollin — and specifically when the former owner put Bullets executive Susan O’Malley in charge of the Capitals’ operations in 1995 — the team openly started to court fans looking to see the visiting team.

“I remember in the early ‘90s, when I was working for the Caps, the Bullets were bad and they were marketing the other franchises in an attempt to get people to come to their games,” said Ed Frankovic, who now covers the team for Baltimore’s WNST radio.

“Then when the Bullets and Caps offices merged around 1995, Susan O’Malley wanted the Capitals to do the same but from [Capitals] General Manager David Poile on down, the hockey people thought that made little sense and so did the majority of the Caps marketing and communications personnel. To go out and market to the fans of your opposition seemed ludicrous,” he said.

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