- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 22, 2003

We've seen Ted Leonsis jolly and accessible. We've seen Leonsis morose. Now we've seen Leonsis mad.
The Washington Capitals owner was still stinging yesterday after yet another Caps first-round exit in the Stanley Cup playoffs and made it clear business as usual would no longer be tolerated for the money-losing, underachieving franchise.
Specific operational plans have not yet been made, but several key points are already sacrosanct: there will be no increase over this year's $51million payroll, attendance growth will be crucial and Leonsis will demand better treatment from Washington Sports & Entertainment L.P., majority owner of MCI Center, over scheduling.
"The market has spoken," Leonsis told the Associated Press yesterday. "The truth of the matter was that we worked very, very hard to expand our fan base, and it was apparent we didn't capture the imagination of a broader base of fan."
Leonsis declined further interview requests yesterday.
Leonsis' latest comments follow a surprising show of anger Sunday night from the fourth-year owner after the Caps succumbed in triple overtime to Tampa Bay to complete a six-game series loss to the Lightning. The entire series represented a bitter pill for Leonsis, who has never seen a playoff series win as Caps owner.
The Caps lost all three home games, dropped a seemingly unassailable 2-0 series lead, saw several games swing on questionable officiating, received little help from offensive stars like Jaromir Jagr in the latter half of the series and failed to sell out any of the three home games.
And not only were the attendance counts, peaking at 17,279, weak for the postseason but also were further diminished through heavy no-shows by season ticket holders. More than 85 percent of the Caps' season ticket base, numbering more than 12,000, purchased playoff tickets. But group sales and walk-up business both badly lagged behind regular-season paces.
"I don't know what we should have done differently about that. I say that in all candor," said Declan Bolger, senior vice president of business operations. "We had all of our marketing initiatives in place, such as plan-holders not being charged [for tickets] until after each playoff round."
The meager crowds though clearly diminished because each of the home dates came on a major religious holiday and because the opponent was not a traditional rival like Philadelphia or one of the New York teams prompted Leonsis to lash out further Sunday night.
"I have some real re-evaluating to do on the kind of investment we're going to make in the team because the city didn't respond," he said.
The Caps finished the 2002-03 regular season with an average attendance of 15,787, down 9 percent from last year. The decrease, third worst in the league on a percentage basis behind Buffalo and Nashville, no doubt owes in part to the team's repeated failure to go deep into the playoffs.
The club also lost more than $20million in the ledger this season, the fourth eight-figure loss in as many years. Profits will be impossible to realize under the current framework because WSELP, as majority owner of MCI Center, controls all revenues from luxury seats, concessions and parking and most sponsorship dollars.
When Abe Pollin, WSELP chairman, elects to sell his controlling WSE interest, he must give first and last rights of refusal to Leonsis. But Pollin reiterated recently that he will stay on "as long as the good Lord allows me."
Leonsis, Bolger and others in Caps management, including president Dick Patrick and general manager George McPhee, will meet early this summer at Leonsis' home in Florida. It is a meeting the group holds there each offseason to review operations and brainstorm for the coming season.
But when combining the disappointments both on and off the ice, as well as Leonsis' growing frustration, this year's session will take on even more importance.
"We'll get down there and hash it all out," Bolger said. "Everything is up for evaluation. But I do believe Washington can be a true hockey town."
Meanwhile, WSE officials yesterday declined to respond to Leonsis' heated criticism of that company's management of event dates at MCI Center. The Caps played back-to-back home games last week during Passover and played again on Easter Sunday, scheduling he blamed on WSE booking the Jordan Capital Classic for last Thursday.
"I'll make sure that doesn't happen again. The party's kind of over [with WSE]," Leonsis said.
But privately, WSE officials defended their right to maintain an active calendar for the privately financed, debt-laden building. The Caps took an eight-game road trip in October and a six-game road swing in March because of other arena events.
Both the NHL and the Caps' lease for MCI Center, however, mandate that the building be available during the Stanley Cup playoffs or leave potentially conflicting events flexible. Neither appeared to have happened fully with the Capital Classic, an annual showcase of top high school basketball talent, keeping its place on the calendar.
NHL officials yesterday defended the scheduling, calling the eight first-round series a large mosaic that at once must attempt to satisfy each team, its fans, league sponsors and, perhaps most critically, the league's TV partners.
"This is a very difficult, very thankless job," NHL spokesman Frank Brown said. "It's one huge series of moving parts, and the unfortunate reality is that there are times when teams have to accept something reluctantly and there are no other options."

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