- The Washington Times - Friday, January 23, 2004

Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis insisted in 2001 that Jaromir Jagr would pay for himself in increased team revenues after trading for the Czech superstar and signing him to a $77million contract.

Less than three years and a fiscally motivated trade with the New York Rangers later, Leonsis’ exuberance could not have been more off target.

Instead of ushering in a new era in team prosperity, Jagr’s short tenure with the Caps was marked by deepening team losses both on the ice and in the ledger, declining attendance and growing fan indifference.

With Washington committing between $16million and $20 million to the Rangers to help pay the final four seasons of Jagr’s $11million-a-season contract, the Caps will have invested more than $50million in the petulant star. Incremental gains in team revenue that clearly can be tied to Jagr will be far less than half that sum.

“We didn’t produce a winner. It’s that simple,” Leonsis told WRC-TV. “We traded for Jaromir in the hopes that he would help us win, and it didn’t happen. I feel bad for our fans.”

During the early days after Jagr’s arrival in July 2001, the current malaise was nowhere to be seen. Fresh off four straight NHL scoring titles, his presence helped produce a boost in season ticket sales from about 10,000 to 12,000, a run on No.68 jerseys bearing his name, a team record for attendance in the 2001-02 season, a 21 percent rise in average ticket prices the next two years and the first full 82-game schedule of local TV coverage for the Caps.

Such optimism, however, did not last. The Caps failed to make the playoffs in 2001-02, lost in the first round of the 2003 playoffs nine months ago and own the second-worst record in the NHL this season entering last night’s games. Jagr’s personal production declined sharply compared to his highly decorated years as a Pittsburgh Penguin, and he coupled that with a series of nagging injuries and a moody temperament.

As a result, home attendance fell 9 percent last season and has declined another 8 percent this season to 14,480 — nearly identical to the level in Leonsis’ first season as owner, 1999-2000, and among the NHL’s laggards. Season ticket sales have fallen back to about 10,000, and local TV ratings for Caps games on Comcast SportsNet have ebbed slightly.

Leonsis and his partners are bracing for a fiscal loss of as much as $30million for the season and even without Jagr will continue to lose millions each season for the foreseeable future.

With NHL officials insistent on implementing some type of salary cap after the current labor deal with the players expires in September, Leonsis said the Jagr trade is designed to get the Caps’ payroll closer to a projected target figure of $32million to $40million. The payroll stood at $50.7million before the Jagr deal.

“This trade is a good one in that it moves the largest player contract in the NHL to a team that can absorb it, and it provides us with options as we seek to improve our team,” Leonsis said. “With our current payroll, our ability to improve was hindered, as well as our flexibility to plan for the future as we move towards a possible new NHL business model.”

The Caps’ final home game of the season and Fan Appreciation Day will be against the Rangers on April3.

Comcast SportsNet executives said they do not expect a substantial drop in viewers or advertisers as a result of Jagr’s departure.

“We are down [in ratings] somewhat, but there are three kinds of hockey viewers,” said Sam Schroeder, CSN general manager. “There are the folks that really don’t care about hockey and don’t really watch too much anyway, the solid core audience that hangs in year in and year out. And there are the bandwagon watchers who get excited when a winning streak is happening and want to see the team win. That core base is very loyal and I believe will still be there. That goes for the advertisers, too.”

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