Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis didn't want a peep out of Pittsburgh Penguins hockey fans at Thursday night's first-round playoff opener at MCI Center. So the AOL Time Warner mogul wrote a computer program that prevented Pittsburgh fans from buying tickets on the Capitals' Web site.
"Pretty cool, isn't it?" Leonsis said. "I got a lot of e-mails from Pittsburgh saying I was mean-spirited and unfair. I don't care. I'm going to keep doing it."
Most of the 18,672 tickets to Thursday's and today's games were already sold to season-ticket holders and to local fans who purchased them at the Capitals' final regular season home game. But Leonsis's partner, Abe Pollin, majority owner of MCI Center, still had 1,000 unused club seats on hand. Leonsis paid Pollin $90 per ticket and then made them available for purchase only through the Capitals' Web site.
By selling nearly all of the seats online, the Capitals were able to control who bought the tickets. Leonsis's staff wrote a software program over the course of two days that prevented would-be buyers from the Pittsburgh area code from completing their ticket purchase. When those fans plugged in their telephone numbers with western Pennsylvania area codes, they were unable to complete their transactions. Instead, they received a message telling them their order could not be processed, Leonsis said.
Die-hard Penguins fans still had the option of driving to MCI Center's box office to buy tickets in person. They could also have asked a friend in the Washington area to order the tickets for them. Leonsis said he even avoided selling packages to travel agents or other groups, fearing the tickets might end up in the hands of Penguins fans. The result?
"I bet there weren't 500 Pittsburgh fans at the game," said Leonsis, whose team won the first game of the best-of-seven series, 1-0. Game 2 is this afternoon at MCI Center.
Leonsis's ticket scheme isn't playing well in Pittsburgh, where the airwaves and newspapers are filled with vitriol.
"I think it stinks," said Steve "Froggy" Morris, owner of Froggy's on Market Street, a gathering place for Penguins fans. "I hope Mario does the same thing to him," said Morris, referring to Penguins owner and star center Mario Lemieux.
Pittsburgh lawyer Chuck Greenberg, who is a Penguins season-ticket holder, said he understands. "For a long time, listening to a Pittsburgh-Washington game in Washington on the radio or TV sounded like a Pittsburgh home game," he said.
Leonsis isn't the first team owner to try pack the house with supportive fans. Teams in other sports, such as the National Football League, try to maximize home-field advantage by ensuring tickets go to local fans instead of visitors.
Pollin, in particular, has said that nothing angers him more than when thousands of fans cheer against his home-team Wizards. When Pollin still owned the Capitals, Detroit Red Wings fans seemed to outnumber Capitals fans during the 1998 Stanley Cup finals.
When widely followed teams such as the Dallas Cowboys and New York Yankees go on the road, for example, as much as a third of the fans root for those teams against the home team. They often buy their tickets from agencies, scalpers or season-ticket holders who choose to stay home.
Last September, U.S. soccer officials limited the sale of seats closest to the field to those fans most supportive of the U.S. men's national team for a World Cup qualifying match at RFK Stadium. While some fans cried foul at the time, the U.S. Soccer Federation endorsed the tactic against the visiting Guatemala team.
National Hockey League spokesman Frank Brown said there's nothing in the league rules that prevents Leonsis from selecting his customers.
"Ticket-selling procedures are up to the individual club," Brown said. "It's not the first time it's happened in sports."
Arthur Bernstein, vice president of the advocacy group United Sports Fans of America, said teams should try to win games on the field, not in the stands.
"I think it's inappropriate," Bernstein said. "You don't try to stack the deck with your own fans. You let both sides in. That's the way I think the game ought to be played."
NHL league procedures call for home teams to make 100 tickets available for sale to the visiting team, according to Capitals spokesman Andy McGowan. McGowan said the team can do whatever it wishes with those tickets. That ensures that there will be at least a few chirps for the Penguins at today's game.