- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 5, 2006

It’s 90 minutes before the Washington Capitals will face off against the Buffalo Sabres on Saturday night, but the team’s marketing chief, Tim McDermott, already is engaging in some hand-to-hand combat in a Verizon Center conference room.

His weapons: a crisp suit and striped power tie, white notebook, shiny pen and a list of questions. Across the table are his targets: longtime Caps season-ticket holders Bill and Brenda McGrath and Ron Diehl.

“What do the Capitals do well?” McDermott asks, ready to jot down every word.

Bill McGrath, an attorney and season-ticket holder since 1996, pauses before answering.

“Getting to the Stanley Cup finals was great.”

McDermott nods. “OK, OK.”

It is not exactly the response he is hoping for from this focus group; the Caps last made the finals nine years ago. But the answer is proof of what McDermott inherited when he joined the team’s front office in September: a passionate but stagnant fan base battered by years of losing and a messy league lockout. The team’s season-ticket base is now about 8,500 — down from a high of nearly 12,000 in 2001 — making big crowds at Verizon Center a rarity. The Caps are averaging a little more than 13,000 in overall attendance, 27th in the 30-team NHL.

McDermott presses on, peppering the fans with more questions, occasionally stroking the side of his closely shaved head. When do you like getting e-mails from the team? What does it mean to be a Caps fan?

Eventually, the focus group opens up. They would like to receive e-mails from the team on different days. They would like to see more promotion of Alex Ovechkin. They’re thrilled with the new practice facility in Ballston. They love the young, scrappy team. They hate it when fans arrive late and talk throughout the game.

McDermott nods again and writes furiously. Progress.

Upstairs, Mike Humes is hoping for some progress of his own. The team’s chief sales officer, who also joined the front office in September, is trying to turn some casual fans into season-ticket holders. On this night, he has invited about 100 potential buyers inside Verizon Center’s posh Dewars 12 Clubhouse to hear a pitch from majority owner Ted Leonsis. Later, during the game, the team’s sales staff will escort them to several different seats in the arena, and they will spend at least one period watching the game inside a luxury suite.

At the end of the night, the sales staff will present these fans with an order form for tickets. It is no small investment: Season tickets range from $588 to $6,930 for prime seats by the glass. Six fans will buy season tickets before this night is over, and the team hopes to close sales with half of the remaining attendees.

“As opposed to describing our product to someone on the phone, we actually get them here to test it out,” says Humes, who speaks softly in an accent that hints at his eastern Canadian upbringing. “All the people I’ve talked to say, ‘Once I saw it, I was hooked.’ We’re not sitting in a position of luxury. Putting people in the seats is key.”

Humes, 45, signed on with the Caps after two years with the Seattle SuperSonics of the NBA. Before that, he was a vice president with the Columbus Blue Jackets, helping to grow and promote that franchise as an expansion team, and a top executive with the minor league American Hockey League.

McDermott, 34, came to the Caps from a football background. He headed up marketing for the Philadelphia Eagles. (His brother, Sean, is an assistant coach with the NFL team.)

“We felt we needed to make a major investment to kick-start the growth of the team after the lockout,” Leonsis says. “These are two world-class guys.”

Both men saw a great opportunity in working for Leonsis, who also is majority owner of the WNBA’s Washington Mystics and eventually could take over ownership of the Wizards. They concede they still are learning about the Caps franchise and its fan base and are asking many questions. Where do fans live? How do they travel to games? How old are they?

“We’ve been here two months, and right now we’re just soaking up all this information,” McDermott says later in the evening. “Whether it’s the fact that this is a transient city or a Redskins town or whatever it is, we need to understand the situation and understand the behavior of our fans, including everything from where they live to how they get here.”

As it turns out, this is one of the Caps’ best nights of the year. The game draws 17,162 — just short of a sellout — and the home team wins 7-4, putting it two games over .500.

Neither McDermott nor Humes watches much of the game, however. Instead, they walk the concourses, meeting with fans and sponsors and occasionally ducking into a suite to check the status of their sales efforts.

At one point, Humes encounters Bob Kettler, a real estate executive whose company recently agreed to pay for naming rights for the Caps’ new practice facility. Humes compliments a young fan for donning a Caps cap and makes a point to stop by a display for General Motors, one of the team’s chief sponsors. The auto manufacturer is giving out T-shirts; Humes suggests the shirts should have a Caps logo in addition to those of the company’s brands.

While the two men are still learning about the Caps and the Washington market, it’s clear they are putting the basics of sales and marketing to work. They’re inquisitive, shake every hand they can and say “thank you” to countless fans throughout the night. Humes recently hired a sales trainer and created a policy requiring his staff to contact every season-ticket holder at least six times in a 12-month period. He’s even planning to visit some fans at their homes.

In addition, Humes has created some new ticket packages, including a deal that gives fans tickets to games of both the Caps and Georgetown basketball at Verizon.

Meanwhile, McDermott organized a new promotion with Ovechkin and AOL for Saturday night, giving the popular left wing his own Web page and distributing posters to every fan who walked through the door. According to the team, the Caps’ marketing budget is now one of the largest in the league.

“The challenge over the next year for Mike and I, who are new to this, is to test some of these things,” McDermott says. “We can’t be afraid to try new stuff. Not everything will work, but we’re going to try some new ideas and create that buzz. There has to be something about the Caps that everybody’s talking about. And we have to create that something.”

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