By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 3, 2008
The Washington Capitals are striving for far more than a playoff berth in their final two games. If the Capitals and star left wing Alex Ovechkin reach the postseason, the presence of one of the game's most dynamic players and colorful personalities could increase interest in the league's showcase event and boost the team's profile locally and nationally, according to sports industry experts.
"If I'm the National Hockey League, I'm praying to whatever hockey god there is, hoping the Capitals make it and the Carolina Hurricanes are as far away from the playoffs as possible," said Howard Bloom, publisher of the Ottawa-based SportsBusinessNews.com. "Even if the Capitals were to get knocked out in four games, it puts Ovechkin in the playoffs and begins to create some brand awareness for the player and the franchise. It's a league that's devoid of personalities, and here's a guy who has a personality, who scores 'SportsCenter' goals."
The fast-skating, hard-hitting, highlight-goal-scoring Russian has more goals than any NHL player in the past 12 years and has led his team back from its worst start in 26 years. He scored goal No. 63 in Tuesday's 4-1 win over Carolina, which, at least for one night, moved the Capitals into a tie with the Hurricanes for the Southeast Division lead and kept them within striking distance of eighth place in the Eastern Conference. The division winners and the five other top teams in each conference make the playoffs.
"I was at the All-Star Game. Ovechkin is one of the guys who gets it," said Bill Bergofin, the senior vice president of marketing at the Versus network, which broadcasts league games. "He juggled the puck on his stick and then spun around [in the SuperSkills competition]. Those are the kinds of things that make the highlight reels. Having guys like that, who are setting records and raising the bar, can only help bring in the casual fans from around the country who maybe are tuning in the for the first time this season. It gives them something to gravitate to."
The impact of Ovechkin's remarkable season, and the Capitals' stunning turnaround, already have been felt at the gate at Verizon Center and in the team's local television ratings. Washington has averaged 17,892 fans in the 13 home games since the start of February, with five sellouts, and ratings on Comcast SportsNet have more than doubled since December over the same period a year ago -- though they remain anemic. In 2008, the team is averaging 19,000 households per game, an average rating of 0.8 percent.
Versus also saw a substantial increase in the Washington market, where the five Capitals games broadcast this season averaged a 1.0 rating, up 150 percent from last season.
Those figures could increase substantially in the playoffs, particularly with a compelling matchup such as Washington-Pittsburgh, a series that would feature Ovechkin and the Penguins' Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, three of the league's brightest young stars. The players and their teams are fierce rivals.
"I would expect the rating to be 1.5 range or higher," said Scott Langerman, Comcast's SportsNet's vice president of business development. "If you get an Ovechkin-Crosby matchup, the sky is the limit."
Although a playoff spot wouldn't mean a massive revenue increase for the team because a portion of that money goes to the league, qualifying for the postseason for the first time since 2003 could have a long-term effect, team president Dick Patrick said.
The Capitals did not sell out their games at Verizon Center in the club's most recent playoff appearance against Tampa Bay five years ago. But Patrick said he believes the excitement of a playoff run would help sell more merchandise and, most important, more season tickets, a category in which the Capitals are believed to rank in the bottom third of the league. Patrick declined to reveal the Capitals' season ticket base, but said the team sold three times as many season ticket packages last month than it did in March 2007 and hopes to sell 1,500 to 2,000 new full-season equivalents before next season. Season ticket renewals also have been strong at 81 percent, according to Patrick.
Ovechkin leading the Capitals to the playoffs would "help build more local interest and build momentum for the long term," said Paul Swangard, managing director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon. "Ovechkin's primary impact will be regional, but his impact potential could be national if the league markets him well, or if he has a breakthrough, showstopping performance. He certainly has that potential."