As the 1981-82 regular season draws to a close for the Bullets and is over for the Capitals, the results at the box office suggest a picture of ironies and inconsistencies.
The Bullets, generally perceived as a young and exciting team, in marked contrast to last year's collection of aging veterans, are on their way to their worst year at the gate. Their average attendance is 8,778, well below the league average of 10,507, with the season almost 90 percent finished.
"Our fans," said Bullets General Manager Bob Ferry, "didn't know what to expect, so they expected the worst."
The Capitals, last in their division with an unbroken eight-year record of failing to make the NHL playoffs, nevertheless continued to outdraw the Bullets. Their average attendance of 11,378 is down 500 from last year and well below the league's 1981 average of 12,796, but it's still the second highest in the club's history, surpassed only by the 1980-81 average of 11,800.
"If people just came to watch the Capitals so they could see winners all the time," observed Tom Hipp, director of marketing for the team and for Capital Centre, "they wouldn't come here.
"You have to work at putting fannies in seats. Not only do we try to give our fans the entertainment of a hockey game, but we want them to have the feeling that they've gotten something for their dollar. We try to give them something they can remember us by so we can keep the name of the Capitals in front of the people."
Over the past decade, as competition for the sports fan's dollar has intensified nationally and in the Washington area, so has the energy put into sports promotion, especially at Capital Centre, which rarely sells out for Bullet or Capital games. Despite those efforts, attendance has been a problem for both teams, and there now are reports that Abe Pollin is looking to sell the Bullets, Capitals and the Centre.
Over the last year, Capitals loyalists have been rewarded for their attendance at games with an assortment of giveaways ranging from hockey sticks to Capital sweatbands and T-shirts to grocery coupons. Thousands of young Bullets fans were lured to the Centre with gifts of life-sized posters of Jeff Ruland, a growth chart superimposed on the back to permit them to record their height against the 6-foot-10 center.
Bob Zurfluh, who directs promotion and marketing for the Bullets, says the club regularly uses such promotional gimmicks as giveaways of player-autographed basketballs and team pictures in addition to the scheduling of high school and junior high school preliminary games.
But the efforts have not paid off. With less than two weeks remaining in the NBA's regular season, only Atlanta, Cleveland, Indiana, Kansas City, San Diego and Utah are drawing fewer fans than the Bullets. Part of the reason, said Ferry, was the loss of such veterans from last year's team as Wes Unseld, Elvin Hayes and Mitch Kupchak. "We lost our stars," said Ferry, adding that this made fans pessimistic about the Bullets' prospects for this year and caused a decline in season ticket sales.
Ferry won't say precisely how many season tickets the Bullets sold this year. But he said that when the team failed to make the NBA playoffs last year for the first time since coming to town in 1973, it was inevitable that season ticket sales would suffer.
What may be of even more significance for the Bullets is that the average attendance for the 1978-79 season--the year after they won the NBA title--was only 12,789, highest in the team's history, but about 66 percent of Capital Centre's basketball capacity.
By contrast, the New Jersey Nets, trailing the Bullets in the NBA standings much of this season, have boosted attendance by 91 percent over last year and are averaging 13,813, almost 1,000 more than the Bullets did the year after they won the NBA title. A partial explanation, said Ferry, might be the Nets' move into their new arena at the Meadowlands and their acquisition of such high-round draft picks as Buck Williams and Albert King.
It's also a fact, said Ferry, that the Bullets have to compete for the attention of Washington-area basketball fans, while the Capitals have something of a monopoly in hockey.
"If you want to watch hockey, there is only one place in town where you can watch it," said Ferry. "We're competing with little league basketball, high school basketball and major college basketball."
And the competition to attract those basketball dollars will get even more intense next year. Georgetown's success in the NCAA tournament is expected to lead to many more season tickets for Hoya games at Capital Centre, where they averaged 10,398 for 12 games in 1981-82, their first year at the Centre. That average is expected to increase significantly next year.
And Maryland basketball, which had a dismal year at the gate this season, also should pick up next season with the addition of several highly rated recruits and transfer students. Maryland averaged 9,830 for 16 home games this year at 14,000-seat Cole Field House.
And with prospering programs at UDC, the NCAA's Division II national champion, and American University, a promising new start at George Washington and the prospect of a 9,000-seat arena for George Mason, the Bullets will be facing even more competition.
"You've got to recognize that marketing is as vital to the products of sports as it is to General Motors," said Russ Potts, former director of sports marketing at the University of Maryland and now a sports marketing consultant and cable television operator in Dallas. "It's not just the nuts and bolts of putting your product together. It's how you go about selling it."
Hipp is trying to sell the Capitals, he said, by increasing the base of hard-core hockey fans in the Washington area, a figure he estimates is now in the 20,000-25,000 range.
"These are the fans who live hockey, who breathe hockey, who know hockey and enjoy hockey," said Hipp. Maybe a quarter to a third of them will be at the Capital Centre on any given night the Capitals are playing.
Planning his marketing strategy, Hipp imagines there are concentric rings surrounding that hard-core group, and that the outer rings represent fans with declining degrees of interest in the game. "You have your general overall sports fan who might come out to two or three games a year, and then you have the people who read the sports pages and they know the Capitals exist, but if they get out to a game it's probably by accident."
The point of all his efforts, Hipp said, is to entice fans into rings closer and closer to the core and ultimately to add them to the hard-core group. The first step in that process is getting people inside the Centre, and that's where promotion and gimmickry comes in.
"Sports are competing for the entertainment dollar. Since we haven't increased the number of hard-core fans, we've got to get people out here to see our product, so we give them something they can take home and remember the Capitals and maybe have some discussions. You make it a total package so you're not judged on hockey alone," said Hipp. "These times are tough. People are discriminating, and they'll drive the extra mile for the discount."
For the season's home opener last October against Philadelphia, Hipp persuaded Safeway to put together a booklet of grocery coupons worth $21. "We said to our fans, 'Come and see our game. You'll see a good product and, on top of that, you'll get $21 off your next grocery bill.' "
For the Saturday, Jan. 2, game against the Vancouver Canucks, Hipp employed a different gambit. That game had all the earmarks of a disaster at the gate, following the New Year's Eve revels and the television surfeit of college football bowl games on New Year's Day. The National Football League playoffs would begin that Saturday afternoon and continue the next day.
"How are you going to get people to a game on a weekend like that?" asked Hipp. "Do you want to buck everything else that's happening? Do you just go with your season-ticket holders or do you try to get a lot of groups coming in at a discount price?
"We did a kids promotion, and we advertised it heavily on television."
Hipp's tactic--in which children 13 years old and under were admitted free if they were accompanied by an adult--paid off handsomely. Instead of the sparse crowd management might otherwise have expected, 16,871 turned out that night to see Bobby Carpenter and Mike Gartner score two goals apiece as the Capitals defeated the Canucks, 5-2.
"Instead of just a few thousand people, we had about 9,000 paying customers and another 8,000 kids," said Hipp. "We feel that promotion generated an extra $40,000. It put a lot of people in the building, which is good, not only for the gross but for the parking and the concessions. And we had a hell of a lot of kids in here who saw our product. A kid is very impressionable. He'll go home, but he'll want to come back again."
Promotional activities similar to those of the Bullets and Capitals have become standard throughout the world of college and professional sports.
The University of Maryland tries to fill its stadium and field house by giving away hats, towels, fans and cups. This year, Maryland hired a football coach, Bobby Ross, who has pledged to introduce a wide-open offense the university hopes will put more people in the seats at Byrd Stadium.
The Baltimore Orioles even offer expense-paid trips to spring training in Florida for fans who sell up to $10,000 worth of season tickets.
The fan group was formed three years ago by a group of Baltimore business people who wanted to demonstrate local support for the Orioles after Edward Bennett Williams purchased the team. The group has 39 members, each of whom must have sold at least $10,000 worth of Oriole season tickets.
In the group's three years, Oriole season tickets have quadrupled from 1,300 to 5,200, according to Bob Aylward, director of business affairs for the team. In addition to the expense-paid trip to spring training, group members receive a cashmere Oriole blazer and invitations to periodic outings throughout the year.
"The general theory is to make them feel they are part of the Orioles' organization, part of the family," said Aylward.
And smaller operations are involved. For example, anyone who took the subway to George Washington University's 4,500-seat Smith Center for a basketball game this winter got a free Metro fare card for the return trip.
One of the early achievements of Bernie Swain, the former assistant athletic director at GW, was to persuade Delta Airlines to contribute $60,000 for a computer scoreboard and then to use the scoreboard as a medium for advertising such products as Coca-Cola, The Washington Post and Marriott hotels. In exchange for advertising The Post on the scoreboard, Swain got free advertising for GW games in the newspaper.
The Washington Redskins are about the only team in town that does not have to promote actively. The Redskins have had 115 straight sellouts at RFK Stadium, and the list to purchase season tickets now stands at 10,915. The Redskins say there is a turnover of about 150 tickets per year. At that rate, the next person added to the list would have to wait until the year 2052 to gain a season ticket.