Saturday, January 19, 2008

By locking up star left wing Alex Ovechkin with a record 13-year, $124 million contract extension, the Washington Capitals showed they are willing to spend the money necessary to compete.

But team officials are under no illusions that the signing alone will boost fan interest enough to lift the Caps out of the bottom tier of NHL attendance.

“We didn’t do it to increase attendance,” Caps owner Ted Leonsis said. “We need to build a team that makes the playoffs and makes the Stanley Cup. Winning, and winning the right way for a long time is the way to do it.”

The Caps rank 29th out of 30 teams in the league in attendance, averaging just more than 13,900 fans. But officials said the team ranks several spots higher in paid attendance because they distribute fewer free tickets than most teams.

And while attendance is about the same as last season, ticket revenue has increased by about 15 percent as more fans pay to attend games, Leonsis said. Meanwhile, local television ratings for the Caps have increased 30 percent after the same number of games last season, according to Comcast SportsNet.

Though it’s hard to gauge the immediate impact on Ovechkin’s signing, the Capitals drew 17,713 Saturday against the Flyers and 15,261 Tuesday against the Senators.

“In the short-term, you may have a small part of your fan base react positively, but it’s really only a honeymoon effect,” said Paul Swangard, executive director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon. “What this does is it allows the team to cut through the clutter and have a conversation with fans whose interest is piqued with this announcement.”

Fans can be forgiven, of course, for taking a wait-and-see approach after the Ovechkin signing.

As one of his first moves as team owner in 2001, Leonsis signed Jaromir Jagr for a then record $77 million over seven years, but Jagr never met expectations and the team fell from contention.

Leonsis has spent the last several years attempting to rebuild the team with an emphasis on youth, and Ovechkin, who ranks second in the NHL in goals, has remained the centerpiece of that effort.

“Obviously, we have to get results,” Leonsis said. “But Alex is homegrown. We saw him grow up in front of our eyes. The alternative [to extending him] was not appealing.”

Swangard agreed but said fairly or unfairly, fans may not necessarily see the distinction between the Ovechkin and Jagr deals if the team does not perform up to expectations.

“They’re positioning it that they are staying on message, but if the performance of Ovechkin doesn’t continue, you absolutely run the risk of this being compared to the Jagr decision,” he said. “There’s a little bit of a skeleton in the closet there.”

But while Leonsis said he does not expect Ovechkin’s contract to spur a flood of ticket sales, he has urged fans to spend more money on the team. He said 3,000 new season tickets would place the Caps among the NHL’s most financially sound teams.

“Well, now I will be asking you to buy season tickets,” Leonsis wrote on his personal blog after the Ovechkin announcement. “It is time for you to pay the piper and to support us with cash and with your time at games.”

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