Correction to This Article
An Jan. 4 Sports article incorrectly described Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis as a former AOL executive. Although Leonsis stepped down from his day-to-day responsibilities with the company at the end of the year, he retains the title of vice chairman.

A Chilly Reception on Home Ice

Alex Ovechkin
Washington ranks fifth in the league in average road attendance this season, meaning more fans come to see Alex Ovechkin on the road than at home. (Jimmy Jeong - AP)
By Thomas Heath and Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, January 4, 2007

NBC Sports is promoting the debut of its NHL "Game of the Week" this month with a commercial starring Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis and Alex Ovechkin, the team's explosive scorer who in his year and a half in town has dramatically raised the entertainment level on and around the ice at Verizon Center.

But despite its Russian star and an inexperienced but energetic young lineup, Washington enters tonight's home game against the Montreal Canadiens with a five-game losing streak and a home attendance average that still is near the bottom of the league.

The Capitals averaged 13,103 fans -- and that's tickets distributed, not actual attendance -- during their first 21 games at Verizon Center, which equals 70 percent of the arena's capacity and the 28th-lowest figure in the NHL. Although the team said those numbers are up slightly from the same period a year ago, it still is about 800 fewer fans per game than last season's average.

Attendance has been a problem for many of the NHL's 30 franchises since the owners' lockout wiped out the 2004-05 season, but the Capitals' woes are noteworthy given all the attention surrounding Ovechkin, 21, last season's rookie of the year who is tied for the league lead in goals this season with 25. Indeed, the Capitals rank fifth in the league in average road attendance this season -- meaning that far more fans are turning out to see Ovechkin on the road than at home.

Leonsis, a former AOL executive who has lost more than $100 million since he bought the Capitals in 1999, remains remarkably upbeat about the team's financial picture and prospects. "We have a once-in-a-generation player in Alex Ovechkin," he said. "He is perhaps the best athlete that this city has ever had, and our fans are starting to appreciate his gifts and I believe will support him and the team we build around and with him."

The Capitals this season have sold about 8,500 season tickets -- the backbone of a successful sports franchise -- but retention of season ticket holders is 81 percent, below the 85 percent average in most professional sports. Season ticket sales under Leonsis peaked between 11,000 and 12,000 in 2001-2002.

Leonsis said he needs to increase sales by 3,000 fans per game to break even. "Our main business goal continues to be to add 1,000 new season ticket sales or plan equivalents that buy three tickets each," he said. "We need to find a way to get 3,000 additional fans into the building for every game."

The Capitals' financial picture has improved dramatically since the league came back from the lockout with a labor agreement that capped team player payrolls and put in place a system to redistribute revenue from big money-making teams to those less fortunate. Aided by several million dollars from this system, the Capitals lost around $5 million in the fiscal year that ended Dec. 31 on a player payroll of about $31 million, according to team sources. That's far less than the $30 million in annual losses the team was running four years ago. One big factor in the loss column: The Capitals still are paying $3.5 million a year toward the salary of former star Jaromir Jagr, who was traded to the New York Rangers almost three years ago.

Ovechkin and his teammates are keenly aware of how important winning is to attracting fans and holding their attention.

The Capitals played themselves into playoff contention last month by winning seven of nine games, but have since dropped seven of their last eight and are on the fringe of the race for the team's first postseason birth since 2002-2003.

"Ultimately, it comes down to winning," goaltender Olie Kolzig said. "If we can get ourselves out of this little slide and get back into playoff contention in late January or February, there will be a little bit of a buzz."

Ovechkin added: "Capitals fans are great fans. But sometimes there's not many. I want more. When you go to the ice and you see lots of people, it's a better atmosphere. When Washington has lots of people, it's unbelievable."

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