By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 1, 2009
As Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals close in on a second consecutive Southeast Division title, the franchise is nearing an equally impressive accomplishment off the ice.
Within days, the Capitals expect to be sold out of the nearly 12,000 tickets they've allocated for full-season plans for next season. When that happens, the sales staff will be forced to do something perhaps only majority owner Ted Leonsis envisioned when he purchased the team 10 years ago: put names on a waiting list.
"I really think we'll enter next season without a ticket to sell," Leonsis said this week at his team's practice facility in Arlington. "I always thought it was up to us. I never once said, 'This is a bad market.' I always believed that if we put out a [good] product and the team played well, it was possible."
The Capitals have already broken the franchise record for sellouts in a season with 25 and are averaging more fans per game than at any time in their history. Both records figure to be rewritten next season.
The team has sold 3,800 new full-season ticket plans since Feb. 17, and with less than two weeks remaining in the regular season, there are fewer than 100 full-season seats available for next season, according to Jim Van Stone, the team's vice president of ticket sales.
Part of the surge, Van Stone acknowledged, is because the only way to guarantee tickets to playoff games this spring is by purchasing a full plan for next season. The Capitals are also one of a few teams who offer an interest-free, 12-month payment plan for season tickets, a program Van Stone said is used by 80 percent of his customers.
The team's success off the ice began with its turnaround on it. Last season's dramatic climb from the bottom of the standings to the playoffs has carried over into this season. Ovechkin and his teammates can clinch their second consecutive division title with a win tonight over the NHL-worst New York Islanders and a loss by the Carolina Hurricanes tomorrow.
That upturn has allowed the Capitals to raise ticket prices by an average of 7 percent for the second straight season -- this year's average ticket price of $41.66 still ranks in the bottom third of the league -- and has paved the way for gains in other areas of the team's business despite an economy that's in the midst of a historic downturn.
As recently as two years ago, the Capitals ranked near the bottom of the NHL with a season ticket base of about 4,500. When the 2009-10 season begins in October, they expect to rank in the top third with a base of nearly 12,000 in a building that holds 18,277.
The Capitals neither control nor sell Verizon Center's club seats and suites, which are believed to total about 2,700 seats and are owned and sold by Washington Sports and Entertainment. The remaining 3,500 seats available for each game will consist of tickets that are held back for single-game sales, group sales, partial-season ticket plans and American With Disabilities Act seating.
"The focus now is about retention," said Tim McDermott, the Capitals' senior vice president. "A couple of years ago, I remember hearing Ted telling some prospective season ticket holders: 'Get in now. It's like buying Google stock at 36 cents.' Ted was right on. Our meteoric rise has been very Google-like."
Ticket sales, though, aren't the only indicator that's pointing up for the Capitals:
-- Television ratings are up 67 percent on Comcast SportsNet. Five games have drawn a Nielsen overnight rating of 1.7, more than all of last season combined.
-- Merchandise sales have remained among the strongest in the NHL, and sales at Verizon Center are up 30 percent this year. Ovechkin's jersey continues to be among the most popular.
-- The team's Web site (WashingtonCaps.com) has also thrived. In March, the Web site established a new high for page views with more than 5.4 million. The previous high for a month was 4.8 million, set in April 2008. March's increase has a lot to do with Ovechkin's controversial "hot stick" celebration in Tampa. That clip attracted more than 2 million page views over a 48-hour span.
-- Twenty-five new corporate sponsorships have been sold over the past 12 months, though sponsorship revenue is not significantly higher than in previous seasons, according to team officials, because of larger sponsors who were forced to withdraw because of the economy.
But the biggest source of pride around the Capitals' front office these days is the exponential growth of the season ticket base since reaching a low point in 2005. Demand has been so high since last year's playoff push, team officials were comfortable raising ticket prices.
"If we were a flash in the pan, in those situations, it's a little bit harder to raise ticket prices," McDermott said. "We're still below the average ticket price. So I still think we're a great value and it's a product that can be good for the next five years."
With almost all of next year's full-season ticket plans sold, some front office employees will slowly begin transitioning from ticket sales positions to "service staffers." Instead of pushing tickets, they'll be in charge of keeping current customers coming back.
The team is also researching the best way to handle something it's never worried about in the past: keeping people on the waiting list engaged.
"We want to make it a true club-type of program," Van Stone said. "Maybe people who are on the waiting list will get presale access to individual game tickets; potentially some gifts."
When Leonsis purchased the Capitals in 1999, he hoped to be in this position at some point. But, as he's found out, being the hottest ticket in town brings a whole new set of challenges.
"There are higher expectations and people who are unhappy because they can't come in," Leonsis said. "It's a whole new experience for us, a whole new stage in our development. I told everyone that it all can go away in a heartbeat. So we have to stay humble and over-service people."
Capitals Notes: Brian Pothier has been nominated by the Washington chapter of the Professional Hockey Writers' Association for this season's Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy, which is awarded annually to the player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey. Pothier returned last month from a 14-month layoff because of a concussion and scored his first goal since December 2007 in Thursday's 5-3 win over Tampa Bay. "The situation I went through is just an example of life," he said. "It's a matter of having a goal and staying focused on it and figuring things out along the way."