- The Washington Times - Friday, October 7, 2005

Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis said his team can break even within the next two seasons thanks to a smaller payroll and a younger team that will lead to long-term success on the ice.

Leonsis, who has lost millions on the team since buying it from Abe Pollin in 1999, said in an interview with The Washington Times that he is concerned about a decline in renewals of season tickets, but a lower payroll and young squad quickly will restore the team to financial health. He spoke positively yesterday about the team’s opener at MCI Center, a 3-2 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets that drew 16,235, an increase of 600 from the last season opener in 2003.

“If you take a step back, it was a terrific night,” Leonsis said. “If we had played Pittsburgh or Philly, we would have sold out. We played Columbus and on a Wednesday night. I’m thrilled.”

The game was the first played in Washington since April 2004. The 2004-05 NHL season was canceled because of a lockout by owners, most of whom claimed to be losing money under the league’s economic structure. Players and owners agreed in July on a new system that included a reduction and cap of player salaries. The league also introduced new rules this season designed to open up play and added a shootout format to break ties.

Leonsis says he expects revenue for the Caps this season to be about 5 percent less than 2003-04, largely because of a 15 percent drop in ticket prices. He says he believes the team can continue to average about 15,000 fans a game, as it has during the last several seasons. But he said he is concerned that season tickets renewals, which typically have come at a rate of about 80 percent, are down near 60 percent this season. New season ticket sales were “extremely strong,” and walk-up sales from the first game reached more than 500 tickets, about double the norm, he said.

The Caps’ payroll this season will be between $25 million and $30 million, down from about $50 million in 2003-04.

The team averaged 14,720 fans a game in 2003-04, ranking 25th out of 30 teams in the league.

“It’s going to take a couple of years to rebuild our fan base,” he said.

League-wide, Wednesday’s opening night generally was viewed as a success, at least in terms of attendance. Opening night attendance totaled 275,447, eclipsing the previous record set Feb. 15, 2003. Eleven teams recorded sellouts, and the average was 18,363 — just shy of a record — on a night with a record 15 games.

The NHL reported that season ticket holders from 2003-04 renewed at a 87.7 percent rate, an increase of 3 percent from the previous season. Twenty-four of the league’s teams sold 1,000 new season tickets, and 11 of those sold more than 2,000.

“If this was a Broadway play and I was reading the next day’s paper, I’d say it was a hit,” said Don Hinchey, vice president of the Bonham Group, a sports marketing firm in Denver. “There was a buzz around hockey that we haven’t seen in years.”

But national television ratings on OLN, a Comcast-owned cable station that is carrying hockey for the first time, were dismal. Nielsen Media Research reported a 0.2 rating, representing a zero share and just 268,000 homes. That is comparable to the ratings ESPN and ESPN2 were getting for its hockey broadcasts in 2003 and 2004. OLN, however, is available in just 67 million households, compared to 89 million for ESPN and 87 million for ESPN2. OLN scored a 2.0 rating, representing 1.7 million viewers, for the final stage of the Tour de France this year.

Local ratings were not yet available and could be clouded because of problems with satellite provider DirecTV. Subscribers in several cities, including Washington, could not watch broadcasts of their local teams because a technical glitch caused many games to be blacked out inadvertently.

Hinchey warned that attendance probably would fall back down.

“It’s normal for opening night to have a big push,” Hinchey said. “I would not be surprised if there was a little bit of retrenchment.”

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