Capitals continue to reach out to fans through social networking

"Let's pick a fight we have a shot at winning," owner Ted Leonsis says about the use of social networking with a young audience. (John Mcdonnell/the Washington Post)
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By Gene Wang
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The Washington Capitals in recent years have moved more aggressively than any other NHL team toward embracing social media Web sites such as Twitter and Facebook, targeting supporters who get their information from non-traditional outlets.

Now, with the team in the midst of a franchise-record winning streak led by one of the world's most dynamic hockey players in Alex Ovechkin, owner Ted Leonsis is hoping the social media strategy will pay off in expanding the club's popularity and engagement with fans.

"The team blew up, and the team got great with really young kids who were very identifiable by the same generation that used that technology," Leonsis said last week from his office at Kettler Capitals Iceplex. "So the co-mingling of this understanding of social media and technology and the team doing great, and the city wanting a winner, has really made this a very magical time for the franchise."

That constant demand for more, elevated by Washington's 14th straight victory Sunday over Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh, has Leonsis convinced his team can compete with the country's most popular sport, professional football. The NFL consistently draws the highest television ratings among the four major professional sports leagues in North America, and the frequent stoppages in play have made it attractive for advertisers seeking the attention of fans watching at home.

"I always believed that the last race to embrace technology -- television -- the NHL lost. We lost," Leonsis said. "Football was clearly the number one sport, and in fact, it was created for television, the perfect medium for TV."

With NHL games often played at a frenetic pace and thus not ideally suited for the small screen, the league is far behind the NFL in television ad revenue. The NHL in 2007 signed a television deal with cable network Versus, which at the time paid $72.5 million. The contract runs through next season and includes yearly inflationary increases. The NFL, meantime, is receiving more than $20 billion combined from deals negotiated with NBC, CBS, Fox and ESPN for the right to broadcast its games.

"Where we should be advantaged is our customers are younger, more educated, Web-savvy than the NFL audience, which is older, less wired. So let's pick a fight we have a shot at winning, and if our consumers are younger, and they love video games, and they have shorter attention spans, and they love interactivity, and they love social media, and everyone blogs, and everyone's on Facebook, why wouldn't we put ourselves right in the middle of that?"

Leonsis has been at the forefront of advancing his team into what he calls "the new world," starting with launching a Web site for the Capitals soon after his purchase and becoming the first NHL owner to make available his direct e-mail address.

The Capitals have more than 95,000 fans on Facebook and more than 11,000 followers on Twitter. Players with accounts include defenseman Mike Green, who Twitters as GreenLife52 and has more than 6,000 followers, and forward Eric Fehr, who only recently began using the social networking Web site at the suggestion of the Capitals.

"The team kind of talked about maybe getting some guys on there," said Fehr, who has nearly 2,000 followers under the handle EricFehr16. "I'm always open to different ideas, so I thought I would try it out, and I like it so far."

Washington was the first NHL club to cover itself with a traveling beat reporter, Mike Vogel, and Web producer, Brett Leonhardt, who gained a cult following after suiting up as an emergency backup goalie for a game last season. The Capitals were also the first to include postgame interviews on their Web site at the beginning of the decade.

The team still has a distance to go, at least on Facebook, to match the fervent devotion of Redskins fans in the new media realm. The Redskins have close to 214,000 fans on Facebook, more than twice that of the Capitals.

The Redskins, according to their Web site, also have 10 individual player accounts on Twitter, the most popular of which include Chris Cooley and DeAngelo Hall. Cooley has nearly 27,000 followers and Hall 21,701, and even lower-profile Redskins have followers in the thousands. Second-year wide receiver Devin Thomas, for instance, has more than 7,800.

The Capitals' growth in popularity on the Web has also triggered a spike in credential requests from bloggers. Washington's Web site lists more than 30 blogs relating to the team, the NHL or both, and while some cover the team as a hobby rather than a profession, media relations director Nate Ewell wrote in an e-mail, "Our issues with bloggers have been very, very rare."

"What's unique and different about us is that most organizations are managed [with the thinking], 'We're bricks and mortar, we're buildings, and we have this Web operation aside us,'" Leonsis said. "We're kind of different. We look at the Web as being our basic power plant, kind of like electricity, so the Web and communicating in this fashion is second nature to us now. It's not like we go brochure, television, mail. It's Web, and then everything else. It's social media first, and everything else."

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