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Leonsis Discusses the Changes in D.C.

As a further diversion my Caps boondoggle this week, I went into Ted Leonsis's suite and traveled down the private elevator to the little room where the cool people eat hot dogs and coleslaw between periods. This was during the first intermission against the Flyers on Tuesday, when the Caps were still leading and everyone was happy.

As I finished chatting with Leonsis, we got into the elevator to go back up to the suite level. Inside, I asked if it mattered to him that fans were sensing considerably fewer Pittsburgh and Philly people in their arena this week than had appeared in the past.

"Yeah, of course," he said. "It means we have season tickets. And when you sell out season tickets, you're gonna get your fans."

Elevators are usually pretty quiet. This one was no exception. Leonsis heard it before I did. "Somebody scored," he said. Then we started going up and heard the roar. "I think that's us," he said with a smile.

Anyhow, because this is what we do in 2009, here's a partial transcript. My first question concerned the buzz that has been building in D.C.

You know, Slumdog Millionaire won the Oscar and it had all this buzz about it. I saw the movie, it's a really good movie. You can't tell why the movie was more popular, better reviewed than other movies, but there was something magical about it. And right now we've kind of captured something. And it's kind of ethereal, [the] buzz or the good vibe that we have.

Now a lot of it comes from, the team is meeting expectations. We live in a world where products and brands disappoint consumers, so when you meet or beat an expectation nowadays, it's like 100-fold better. And I think it's so tough out there, and with our home record, we seem undefeated. What's our record at home, [24-5-1 at the time]. Figure three hours per game. So 75 hours of smiling and pleasure ad only like six hours of pain. That's very unusual today, right?

And I really do look at the way people pay us with money, but more importantly with time. And I watch, the game ends, and when we win, people are just happy. They listen to the show, they call in, I get home, there's already lots of e-mails. And so we've captured something in this really tough moment.

Then you've got all the usual things: Ovechkin is magical, and not only does he help the team win, you almost want to be able to say I was there when. I was there [against] Buffalo when he scored that goal. Or yeah, I was there when he did the spin-o-rama. Well, I was at the Montreal game where he got four with the broken nose, right? And he's building this body of work. I mean, he's really become kind of a cross-over cultural phenomenon.

Have people talked to you about him who are not hockey people?

Yeah. In new york, we played the New York Rangers and we're down 4-0, we beat them 5-4. I get a phone call in the office from George Bodenheimer from ESPN, and he said, 'You're gonna get a call from [a director], he makes IMAX movies. [The director] said, 'I've never seen a guy like this, I want to train 24 cameras on him and make an IMAX movie. He's a phenomenon. As a creative person I'm envisioning the skating, the ice, the lights.' So he's crossed over.

Are there D.C. people who are not hockey people who have gotten in touch with you?

Madeline Albright is coming to a game with her granddaughter. The other day I had a father write me a letter from New Jersey. He drove five hours from New Jersey with his son. They're New Jersey Devils season ticket holders. He drove five hours with his son on a snowy rainy day to meet Alex. And it was an optional practice and Alex wasn't there. It shattered the kid. And so the father [wrote], 'I'd like to come down, will he be there, he really wants an autograph, can I send you the jersey that he bought, get it signed? You're starting to get almost these religious-type things.

Has Madeline Albright been to a game before?


Do you know other people like that?

David Gregory was here the other day. He was Twittering. He's got 66,000 subscribers to Twitter. And he was saying, I'm here in my Caps jersey wearing red supporting the Caps.

Do you worry about--kind of jumping ahead--the fact that it's happened so, SO suddenly. Do you worry that means that it could....

Go away that fast? Well, I think a couple of things happened. One, because it's a home-grown team. And I believe in this, that when a kid's young and he just starts and he starts to grow up, the fans almost adopt them. And so Ovechkin, and Semin, and Green, and Backstrom, [fans]feel like they're theirs, and they're gonna watch them grow up. So there's a deep fondness.

Kids will talk for years about the Ovechkin goals. It was the No. 1 [viewed] video on YouTube for a day. I mean, that's a culture phenomenon. Number one searched video on YouTube. I mean, that's amazing. And so we had 19,000 people, it'll go into lore, it'll be there were 100,000 people who attended that game.

And we can win a Cup. That's why I just am singularly focused on that. There's this generation that's ready to be grabbed, because when you win a championship and you have immortality, that becomes your touchstone. I remember growing up in new york, 1969, we won every championship. Everyone went on the subway and went for the parades. You were just so proud to be a New Yorker. The Mets. The Jets. I was a Jets season ticket holder with my dad, [and] all those people who are my age and stayed in New York, they're forever Jets fans, you know? They're forever Mets fans.

So winning a Cup for us would just tip us. We'd literally just get there. If we were to not make the playoffs this year, that would be bad. If we make the playoffs and we go deep into the playoffs, next year will be even bigger. And then one day, if we win a Cup, I really do think that we can say we're an equal, right?

Look at the other sports teams, you have to look at fan passion, season tickets, renewals, revenues. We could have for next year 15,000 season tickets. That's an enormous amount of season tickets. That would guarantee every game's a sellout. The rest are in suites and club seats. We could end up starting to build a backlog. We could have a waiting list.

When you said, 'We could be an equal,' you mean with the other franchises in town?

Yeah. Because I still think there's a feeling, the NFL's up high, [then] baseball, basketball and hockey. That's what I think the order is, and the league revenues are like that. But in selected markets....Detroit, hockey team's more important. Philadelphia, more important than the basketball team, probably as important as the baseball team even though the baseball team just won. And so I do think we're gonna take our place in that pantheon, and it won't be, 'Oh, you've got 15,000 fans.' No, you start to get sellouts and have double, triple the ratings, we could have ratings of 2.0, 3.0. Those are big numbers.

I've seen this before where you've talked about how many hockey fans there are now in this market and how many you think there could be....So what's the number you think there is now?

I think there's 50,000 real fans that we can count on.

And you think it could grow to what?

Double it.

In what time span?

This time next year.

In a year you think you could have 100,000 fans?

Yeah. And when I say fans, I mean they're watching on TV, they're listening on the radio, they're going to the Web site, they're coming to the games, they're buying merchandise, they're talking about the team. They're hard-core fans.

To double that in a year is a pretty....

Yeah, but I think they've been here and we've activated them, re-activated them.

That's what I'm curious, are they people who are kind of dormant hockey fans, dormant Caps fans?

Yeah. I have so many people who come up to me and say, 'I love what you've done, thank you. I want you to know I used to come to games all the time in the '80s, I stopped coming but I love this team and I'm back.'

So it's not like basketball fans becoming hockey fans, it's people who have been here?

Although I do think we have grabbed a bunch of casual fans, who their loyalty, they're not hardcore hockey fans, and we were able to bring them over to us. Just look at how many hits you're getting, how many hits is Tarik getting?

[A lot - ed.]

Anyhow, this was right about when we took the elevator up, and the Caps scored, and then I started talking to two other team officials, who told me that the club had a 94 percent renewal on season tickets last year, and is expecting about 95 percent this year. Not counting player holds, NHL holds or suites, they have less than 2,000 tickets remaining for '09-'10, which is why I wrote that they're anticipating a possible year of sellouts. This after a season-ticket base of about 6,500 two years ago.

"If we keep on the trajectory we're on, I anticipate we'll be very close to selling out our inventory before the start of the [next] season," said Tim McDermott, the chief marketing officer.

"It's unheard of," said Jim Van Stone, the team's vice president of ticket sales. "It's an amazing story, for it to happen this quickly."

/still not on Caps payroll. really. the propaganda will end eventually.

By Dan Steinberg  |  February 26, 2009; 2:01 PM ET
Categories:  Caps  
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Next: Local Hoops Gets Testy


Just wanted to tell you great article in the Post today, good job Dan. :)

Posted by: rachel216 | February 26, 2009 2:51 PM | Report abuse

Now reporting like this is just what the WaPo needs. No frills, no bs, no unnamed sources, no fluffing. Just simple, to the point, from the source reporting. Thoroughly enjoyable.

Posted by: fushezzi | February 26, 2009 3:11 PM | Report abuse

Dan, you keep this up and some of the folks at OnFrozenBlog might just offer to bear your next child... :-)

Posted by: Juan-John | February 26, 2009 5:43 PM | Report abuse

No, no, keep the propaganda coming!

Posted by: smccloskey2 | February 26, 2009 8:37 PM | Report abuse

So you don't really like the Caps, you're just covering them cause you get the most readers... wow, I was changing my mind about you, I thought you were a Caps fan. I guess not.

Posted by: rachel216 | February 27, 2009 3:10 PM | Report abuse

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