Renewed Enthusiasm

By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 10, 2008

Coach Bruce Boudreau bounced up and down, his arms thrust skyward, while Alex Ovechkin and his Washington Capitals teammates high-fived and clutched one another. On the other side of the Verizon Center glass, a delirious sea of red-clad fans filled the seats, many of which had gone unoccupied in previous seasons.

With a 3-1 victory over the Florida Panthers in the regular season finale, the Capitals completed a remarkable rally from last place to the NHL's Southeast Division title and ended a frustrating five-year absence from the playoffs.

Though the Capitals' stay in the postseason was cut short by the Philadelphia Flyers, interest in the team, locally and nationally, was soaring. In the five months since Joffrey Lupul's overtime goal in Game 7 sent Washington into the offseason, business has continued to grow. The Capitals' overall revenue has increased by $15 million from this time last year, according to majority owner Ted Leonsis, and the season ticket base has doubled since February. Merchandise sales, meantime, also have spiked.

"It hasn't died down," team president Dick Patrick said. "Usually the season ends, or you play your last playoff game and that's it, nothing happens. But we kept selling tickets right through the summer. Hopefully we'll get off to a good start and have a good year and that will put us over the top."

With a new season set to begin tonight in Atlanta, the Capitals' challenge is to sustain -- and, if possible, accelerate -- the franchise's newfound momentum. On the ice, that means advancing beyond the opening round of the playoffs for the first time since reaching the Stanley Cup finals in 1998. Off the ice, it means continuing to build the season ticket base and continuing to grow revenue, which is needed to offset a payroll that has increased by almost $17 million in the past year.

But it all begins, just as it did last season, with the team's results.

With Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Alexander Semin, Mike Green and an everyman coach in Boudreau, the Capitals have one the league's most appealing lineups. Add to that Chris Clark and Michael Nylander, veterans who missed most of last season because of injuries, and expectations inside and outside of the organization are as high as they've been since the start of the Jaromir Jagr era.

The turnaround off the ice has been just as pronounced.

Coming out of the lockout in 2005, the Capitals ranked near the bottom of the league with a season ticket base of 4,500. Last fall, after getting off to the franchise's worst start in 26 seasons, they sank to last in announced attendance. In October and November, television ratings declined sharply from the previous season.

But a turning point arrived on Thanksgiving, when Boudreau was promoted from the minor leagues to replace Glen Hanlon as coach. Boudreau implemented a high-tempo style of play, turning loose the team's skilled youngsters.

In March, as a playoff spot became reachable, the demand for tickets grew and vice president of ticket sales Jim Van Stone's sales staff doubled to 40 people. Over the summer, many of those staffers made 80 to 100 calls per day.

As a result of the increased demand and the sales department's more aggressive approach, the season ticket base has reached almost 10,500 full-season equivalents -- an "equivalent" is a seat sold for all 41 regular season home games (e.g., two half-season plans, four 10-game plans, etc.) -- putting the Capitals near the league's midpoint, and about 1,000 less than the team's peak in Jagr's second season. Despite an increase in the prices of some season tickets -- some as much as 10 percent -- The renewal rate, Van Stone said, was 93 percent, the sixth-highest rate in the league. Because suites and club seats are owned by Washington Sports and Entertainment, the Capitals have about 14,500 seats to sell.

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