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Teams juggle home edge vs. ticket sales

- 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.

The low point, according to Mr. Frankovic, came during the team's appearance in the 1998 Stanley Cup Finals, when according to him, the team sold large blocks of tickets to a Detroit travel agency before putting them on public sale, resulting in a large number of Red Wings fans on hand for Washington home games.

When fans wanting to buy Stanley Cup Finals tickets at the arena for an announced public sale, they were told they could only purchase tickets by getting a ticket plan for the next season -- even though the team had already sold a number of tickets to out-of-towners without the same requirement.

That experience left Mr. Frankovic angry with the spectacle of the victorious Detroit Red Wings parading the Stanley Cup on the Capitals' home ice with plenty of their fans in the stands.

"The 1998 Stanley Cup Finals, where there were so many people rooting for the Red Wings, was a disgrace to hockey in D.C.," he said. Mr. Mentel, who understands the business side of selling tickets to visiting fans but didn't like to see so many Phillies fans in the stands, compared the Nats' current plight to what the Capitals went through.

Kim Luckbaugh of Fairfax, said she was not happy with what happened Monday, saying she doesn't plan on attending games against the Phillies or Mets.

"It's completely unnecessary for the home team fans to have to endure this type of boorish behavior when there are measures that can be put in place to curb it," she wrote in an e-mail to The Washington Times. "I don't understand why this behavior was tolerated and these insolent fans were not kicked out of the Park."

For the Capitals, a turning point came when Ted Leonsis took over the club in 1999, and with the new ownership came a pretty aggressive policy to limit out-of-town sales as best as they could.

"As a practice, the Capitals have worked diligently to ensure Caps fans are buying tickets to games at Verizon Center -- we like it that way and our fans like it that way, too," Jim Van Stone, the team's senior vice president for tickets sales and service, wrote in an e-mail to The Washington Times.

"Many sports teams, especially NHL clubs, rely heavily on ticket sales as a revenue stream," he said. "Of course you want the home team's fans filling your arena or stadium, but that's not always the case. Players and management alike, no one wants to hear the visiting fans cheer in the home team's building."

The most notable effort was attempting to prevent fans with Pittsburgh area codes looking to purchase Capitals playoff tickets on TicketMaster, a practice several other teams -- including the Penguins themselves -- have eventually implemented for big events.

While the practice isn't totally effective with the secondary market for tickets, the atmosphere for big-name teams visiting Verizon Center has changed markedly, and and fans are appreciative of the team's efforts to limit the visiting ticket sales.

"Ted Leonsis changed several team policies to make it much easier to sell to hometown fans and much harder for out-of-town fans to get tickets," season-ticket holder Richard Rossier wrote. "Now of course, the last two seasons, the difference is amazing, when we play the Pens or the Flyers or anyone -- even Detroit -- and its almost 95 percent Caps fans in there and we are loud rocking the red. So the change has been huge, almost beyond belief."

With a relatively new team in Washington, and having narrowly missed a sellout in the 2009 home opener against Philadelphia, the Nationals aggressively attempted to make sure Opening Day was sold out -- even if it meant selling a large number of tickets to Phillies fans.

Officially, Major League Baseball was pleased with the announced sellout of 41,290 tickets, with Bud Selig approving the large mix of fans.

"I think it's great, great for the sport, I really do," Mr. Selig said. "It's only a testament to this game's popularity."

Mr. Kasten did not respond to a request for a comment on the team's ticket policy.

However, with the enthusiasm shown from the initial sale which saw the available tickets disappear in seven minutes, Nats fans like Jeff Flanzenbaum of Arlington aren't sure why the team needed to go outside the area to fill the park.

"As Opening Day tickets were sold out pretty quickly, it certainly makes me wonder why the Nats didn't give locals another chance to buy seats before they sold blocks of tickets to Philly ticket groups," he wrote. "Sure the Lerners wanted a full house on Opening Day, but Im not convinced that the local fan base couldnt have achieved that goal with a little more time and marketing."