A Capital Success: How Did Leonsis Do It?
Last year around this time, I foolishly wrote that a Game 7 is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, a climax that summons everything a fan has to give and brings strangers together in a frenzy of hope, desire and expectation. Well, here it is again.
The Washington Capitals, in case you haven't noticed, have gone from just another lousy D.C. sports team with thin, fickle, and emotionally uninvested crowds to the talk of the town. You don't have to look back too many years to find all manner of news stories and blog items speculating that Washington's hockey team would be a natural candidate for contraction.
Caps owner Ted Leonsis still has 30 unchecked items on the 101-item To Do list he made for himself after he survived a plane crash landing in 1983 (still not done: "Support someone who makes a great breakthrough in science or art" and "Get a hole-in-one," among others.) But he's accomplished most of the big ones, including "Own a sports franchise" and "Give $1 million to Georgetown University." Leonsis is still pushing for #41: "Win a world championship." But there's one item that's not on the list that he's already taken care of against pretty steep odds:
Leonsis has turned a notoriously unenthusiastic hockey town into one that's winning serious respect throughout the sport and beyond. Thanks to their Russian all-stars, the Caps have become the darling of Russia's rabid hockey fans. Thanks to the owner's relentless marketing, a wholesale remake of the franchise's colors and logos, and a hyperspiking of the intensity of the fan experience at the Abe Pollin Center, even people who think icing is the part of the cake that's never as good as it looks are finding themselves donning red and rocking the heart of Chinatown.
The Caps' attendance this year was 13th in a league of 30 teams, but it was actually even better than that--the team filled its home arena to 97 percent of capacity over the course of the regular season, putting the Caps firmly in the upper echelon of the NHL. That's a huge change in a very short amount of time--it's up from 83 percent full last season and well less than that in previous years.
Of course, having a great team that makes it deep into the playoffs is an important part of putting fannies in the seats. But this doesn't look like a mere curiosity crowd; these are people who are investing in jerseys, learning the players, absorbing some of hockey's distinctive culture.
Are there reasons for the Caps' success that go beyond their winning play? Sure, there are factors that helped Leonsis--especially these two: The blossoming of the Seventh Street restaurant, bar and retail scene in the latter years of the economic boom, along with the sense of safety and excitement that made the arena neighborhood far more attractive; and the relative decline of the Redskins and the disenchantment that has swept through what had been the fan base of that totally dominant franchise.
(Sports Illustrated this week declares Dan Snyder to be the third-worst owner in all of football. The magazine says we in this region are lucky enough to have the fifth-worst owner in baseball--the Nationals' Ted Lerner--and the absolute worst baseball team owner on the planet, the Orioles' Peter Angelos. Leonsis and Abe Pollin are fortunate enough not to make SI's lists at all.)
And then there are the moves that Leonsis and his executives made: Putting together a strong team, ratcheting up the marketing, building a game experience that sweeps even the most ignorant casual fans into the action, diving into new media whole hog (a natural for Leonsis, who won his riches at AOL), and making a game with a reputation as a white, northern passion accessible and comfortable for folks of every background. It's amazing how often I hear casual and non-fans talking with a certain wonder about the fact that the Caps had a Jewish player, a black player, even a local player--such moves can seem crass, but if made honestly and on merit, can also bring new crowds under the tent.
So, today's question: Is Caps mania for real, and if so, what made it happen?
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