Caps: Leonsis Rocks D.C. Red
A Game 7 is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Sudden death overtime in a Game 7 playoff is tension squared. And when the death happens to your team, and the waves of noise that rocked the Pollin Center for more than three hours finally give way to a grim silence of shuffling feet and muttered regrets, the sorrow is real.
Sure, the Caps lost, and sure, the guy who got onto a Red Line train tonight at Dupont Circle took one look at the carful of dour-faced fans and said, "Ugh. I hate to ask." A flurry of shaken heads confirmed it for him. But the Caps' improbable run for the Stanley Cup ended Tuesday night with a couple of much happier lessons cemented in the minds and souls of many thousands of fans:
1) Ownership and management matter. In any sport, fans love a superstar and delight in a team that somehow jells. But the Capitals' path to the playoffs this year represented both a marketing victory for owner Ted Leonsis and a management triumph that showed that, at least in some sports, the guys you have running the team really do make a difference.
From the simple decision to switch the Caps' colors and uniforms to the intense marketing of the team in an iffy hockey town, Leonsis has set out from the start of his ownership to remake the image both of the sport and of the experience of going to a game. As the Lerners are finding out about Washington area baseball fans, and as Wizards fans have known since way back into the Bullets/Cap Centre era, this can be a tough place to run a sports franchise. Fans often come late, leave early and spend as much time on their Blackberrys as they do watching the game. Even Redskins crowds, while they still make the team one of the most profitable in sports, have turned somewhat lackluster in recent years, thanks to ownership and management that seems to have a deep animus against the team's remarkably loyal fan base--once the envy of all pro sports team owners.
Ok, this was a playoff Game 7, but still, the degree to which fans were into the action is nothing short of stunning. Many stood for all three periods, plus the overtime. The place was a nearly seamless sea of red. And the crowd proved once again that if you provide a great fan experience--and a winning team helps in a big way, too--people who ordinarily loathe entering the city will happily come downtown, and happily take Metro.
Which leads to #2: In the eternal debate over whether Washington is a decent sports town, the pendulum is ever drifting one way or the other. The Caps' run over the past couple of months nudges the big ball well over toward the conclusion that Washington sports fans desperately want to believe, but just haven't been given much of a chance to do so. The Wizards/Bullets have never put together enough of a winning streak to win the hearts of fans who are only too happy to save their basketball passion for the college game. The Nats have a long way to go to teach the region's lost generations to connect to baseball as Washingtonians did all too long ago. D.C. United has yet to find a star or marketing hook that could convert many of those who love to play soccer into fans of the major league game in this country. And the Caps, struggling like so many NHL teams to save hockey's status as one of the major sports, face a similar fight to capture the attention of casual fans who enjoy a winner in any game, but really don't know much about hockey except that it's hard to follow the puck on TV.
Leonsis's high tech gimmicks are fun and appeal to all generations. Whether fans are texting messages directly to the big scoreboard over the ice, or texting their choice of songs for the organist to play at the next break in the action, the non-sports entertainment at Caps games is interactive and accessible to almost anyone.
And despite their rowdy reputation, hockey fans are more open and solicitous of newbies than fans at many other sports events. Just in the three rows around us tonight, I heard half a dozen fans patiently explaining some of the game's more arcane rules to those of us whose knowledge of the game was lacking. Everybody wants to feel part of the in crowd at such an event, and those gestures helped enormously.
So, neither one game nor one playoff run makes for a better sports town. But every bit helps, and in a city where the dominant gene seems to favor losing, a whole lot of hockey novices are eager to rock the red.
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