- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 25, 2005

In a month that was supposed to mark the triumphant return of the National Hockey League, the Washington Capitals have been playing in front of more empty seats than fans.

Through six home games, the Capitals find themselves in not only last place in the Southeast Division, but at the bottom of the NHL in attendance, averaging just 12,312 fans per game, nearly 5,000 off the league average. And because NHL official attendance figures are based only on the number of tickets distributed, a casual count indicates that most games at MCI Center have had fewer than 10,000 seats filled.

Capitals owner Ted Leonsis refuses to cast blame elsewhere for the small crowds and acknowledged that he has made a conscious decision to place a young, largely unrecognizable squad on the ice after having been burned in past years by more expensive teams that failed to win. The team’s payroll is now $28million, down from more than $50 million at the start of the 2003-04 season, with 20-year-old Alexander Ovechkin as its biggest star.

“I knew what I signed up for,” Mr. Leonsis said. “We’re rebuilding.”

There has been strong buzz about hockey nationwide, now that the NHL has returned from yearlong lockout that forced the cancellation of the 2004-05 season. Since games returned Oct. 5, overall attendance has been strong — with the average game drawing about 17,000 fans. Eleven teams have sold out each of their home games so far, and three other teams have been at 98 percent capacity or better. But it has been a different story in Washington.

The Capitals’ Oct. 16 game against the defending NHL champion Tampa Bay Lightning drew 10,002 in attendance, the smallest crowd at any game in the league this year. Last Saturday’s game versus the Carolina Hurricanes was more encouraging, drawing more than 13,000 in attendance and well more than 10,000 in the seats. But thus far, the only NHL team with attendance comparable to the Capitals is the Chicago Blackhawks, who are losing attention in their city to the World Series-contending White Sox.

Mr. Leonsis is looking less at bodies in seats and more at dollars and cents. Ascribing to the motto of “it’s about revenues” he said the team will lose just $5million this year, compared with more than $30 million in years past. Revenue from nearly everything including single-game ticket sales, sponsorships and television is either flat or above the 2003-04 season levels, he said, and the league’s new revenue-sharing plan will boost the team’s finances further.

The team’s biggest problem has been its failure to renew about 1,000 season-ticket accounts, which represent about 3.5 tickets on average. The team has fewer than 7,000 season ticket holders, down from 11,000 at its peak.

“We’ve isolated what the problem is,” Mr. Leonsis said. “The only way we’re going to get them back is for the team to show it’s playing well.”

That could be a tall order, said some hockey observers, who said the team is still short on talent. Ovechkin, the league’s top pick in the 2004 draft and the team’s leading scorer, has garnered much attention. But one player can’t bring a Stanley Cup, analysts said.

“Marketing one player will only get you so far,” said hockey analyst Bill Clement, host of the studio show for OLN’s coverage of the NHL. “It’s wins that will get people in the stands. It remains to be seen whether they have the infrastructure to get to the next level.”

There are indications that fans might come around as the season progresses. Locally, the Capitals television ratings are up 50 percent on Comcast SportsNet compared with the same period in 2003. And Mr. Leonsis says the team is selling new season-ticket plans at a rate of about 50 to 60 per day, compared with a typical 15 to 20.

“I’m not going to blame anything or anyone else,” Mr. Leonsis said. “We just have to put out a product and a plan that fans believe in.”



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