Unless Abe Pollin can interest Washington-area business leaders and sports fans in satisfying the conditions set by his potential new investors by Aug. 20, this town could lose its fourth professional franchise in 11 years.
And the nagging question is why?
Why is an area of more than 3 million people and one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country so apathetic about its sports teams?
A documentary on Washington as America's sports mecca would run only as long as a Redskin highlights film. Political winners swoop in and out of here on election year wings, but sports franchises tend to limp away on battered bankrolls.
"You name the sport and a team has had to move for lack of support," said Charlie Brotman, a Washington native and longtime sports publicist. "From baseball to box lacrosse, they've all left." Brotman should know. He's worked for most of them.
Baseball has flopped in the Nation's Capital twice. In 1961, the original Senators of Calvin Griffith fled to Minnesota. Ten years later, owner Bob Short shipped the second version to Texas. Sure, the teams were generally bad, but Washington didn't have a monopoly on bad baseball teams. Now baseball fans, most of whom have given up hope of the big-league game returning, must settle for driving to Baltimore or watching the Alexandria Dukes of the Class A Carolina League.
Soccer's Diplomats, who weren't bad on the field, were two-time losers (not to mention two predecessors), and now the Capitals of the National Hockey League are struggling in financial quicksand.
"For winners, it's a fantastic town, but not otherwise," said Brotman.
Not always. Ask the 1978 NBA champion Bullets. A season after bringing the city its first title in 36 years, the average attendance was 12,789, but only 3,800 season tickets were sold.
Pollin, who owns both teams and the Capital Centre, still can't believe that season-ticket figure, although he points out the Bullets are financially healthy when compared to the Capitals.
Professional golf and tennis tournaments have been successful recently, particularly when a big-name player, such as Jack Nicklaus or Ivan Lendl, is contending for the championship.
On the collegiate level, Georgetown basketball has brought the city to its feet during the winter months, and last season the University of the District of Columbia won new credibility with the Division II title.
After the Hoyas' trip to the NCAA finals last March, Georgetown could probably sell 14,000 season tickets.
With 15 games at Capital Centre (basketball capacity 19,035), some sellouts appear likely. The Georgetown-Virginia game on Dec. 11 already is a guaranteed sellout. The Hoyas could probably sell more than their allotted 9,000 seats, but Virginia gets 9,000 to sell.
"Sports fans here are sophisticated," said Frank Rienzo, Georgetown athletic director. "There are certain chords that touch the Washington fan, and it's a question of learning to play the right tune. They appreciate quality."
Georgetown's favorable reviews are recent. In a 1977 Washington Post survey on the popularity of area professional sports, nearly 45 percent of those polled listed football as a favorite, with basketball and baseball rating 16 and 13 percent respectively. Hockey trailed with 4 percent.
"With the Redskins, Washington is about as good a place in America as there is to play," said Jack Kent Cooke, who owns the club. "Fans show great forbearance when they don't win, and great pride when they do. It's a joy to have control of a club like this."
Cooke fondly refers to Washington simply as Redskin territory. With good reason: since 1966 the Redskins have sold out RFK Stadium (capacity 55,045) 115 consecutive times in the regular season. There is also a lengthy waiting list for season tickets, making the games as significant socially as they are sportingly.
Edward Bennett Williams, who bought the Baltimore Orioles in 1979 and has been president of the Redskins since 1966, said: "The only thing Washington has proven is that it is a tremendous football town for the Redskins. The other sports haven't fared as well; and the Redskins are almost an exception.
"I think whether or not the town can support baseball, hockey and professional basketball remain to be seen.
"One problem the city seems to have is that there is not a homogenous population," Williams continued. "To a large extent, it's a city of divided loyalties, with so many of its residents still following their hometown teams."
In Baltimore, only 45 miles away, the Colts' paid and actual attendance are the lowest in the National Football League. Mayor William Donald Schaefer cannot be sure owner Robert Irsay will keep the team in town, yet he said recently, "I believe in team support from fans. Washington is a perfect example. I look over there and see what they're doing and say, 'Wow.' "
Tickets for the Capitals and Bullets are easy to come by. The Bullets averaged 9,197 last season and reached the playoffs. The Capitals, who have never had a winning record, averaged 10,633 from 1974 to 1981; last season, they drew 11,378 and reached an early summer vacation for the eighth year.
Last April, the Bullets beat the defending champion Celtics in Boston in the second game of the Eastern Conference semifinals to even that series at one game apiece, yet about 4,000 tickets to each of the Saturday and Sunday games at Capital Centre went unsold.
"Everything in life is timing," said George Allen, former Redskins coach. "You have to win right away. When I was there (Washington), we went to the Super Bowl the second year."
Allen said his team's seven straight years of standing ovations convinced him that in Washington "everyone's a Redskins fan."
Which probably would mean everyone is not a Bullets or Capitals fan.
Some explanations for Washington's failure to embrace its "other" teams are rational. It's a government town, so many residents are from somewhere else and often remain loyal to that old hometown club. In addition, there is less of a blue-collar base of support than in many other cities of comparable size, and less corporate support; the Justice Department, for example, is less likely to buy a package of season tickets than a construction company. And some fans say the location of the Capital Centre, which is in Prince George's County, about 15 miles from downtown, is inconvenient.
"Those are easy assumptions to make and very generalized," said Berl Bernhard, whose optimism would have Redskin fever becoming football fervor when his United States Football League franchise plays at RFK next spring. Team officials said they have received more than 3,000 season ticket inquiries.
"Actually, the majority of the city is quite stable. The legal, medical, small- and medium-sized business communities are here to stay."
But this seemingly show-me relationship with sport?
"There is less interest than I'd have anticipated in pro basketball . . . hockey, I'm not sure," Bernhard said. "It's a bit of a 'foreign' sport, one people don't have much background in, maybe."
"Football's built-in advantage is its limited schedule," said Allen. "When you don't play too many games, that's a plus," he said. "And television exposure has helped football. The game is made for TV. Hockey isn't. You can't follow that puck on the screen."
Bernhard agrees. "For some odd reason there seems to be an almost exorbitant interest in football. Maybe because football's season is concentrated, and the other teams play so many games."
He can't explain it either.
Pollin, sweating out a summer's worth of questions on the Capitals' continued existence, is quietly disappointed at Washington's underwhelming response to his teams.
"Washington is the capital of the world, and there's so much going on, sports must compete with the rest," he said. "And I do think the fact that it is such a transient city means it takes people a while to adopt new teams. Some have been here 25 years and still don't follow Washington teams."
Mayor Marion Barry believes Washington is very much a sports town, evidenced by the Redskins "always packing the house.
"Our problem," he said, "is geting owners to bring something here that people will support."
John Ziegler, president of the NHL, believes Washington is a bona fide hockey town.
"This team has the potential of being one of the really strong ones in the league," he said. "The Caps have averaged over 10,000 a game since they began, and those people haven't yet seen a playoff game. That's a base of hockey followers who should not be taken lightly."
Ziegler said he is "surprised that, because of the affluence that appears to be in Washington, the Capitals haven't caught on as entertainment," rather than just another team.
Maybe because the team's performance has never been very entertaining? After all, this is a team that has tied almost as often as it has won; its overall record is 163 victories, 375 losses and 102 ties.
"If the Caps were ever to get to the quarterfinals, and people couldn't get that ticket, then it would become the in thing to do," said Ziegler. "I don't think Washington is a bad sports city. People always talk about how the baseball team left. It's like a guilty conscience, constantly referring back to that. That doesn't necessarily make it a bad city for sports."
Max McNab, former Capitals general manager, said Redskins dominance has made Washington a one-sport town.
"They were firmly entrenched by time the Bullets arrived from Baltimore and the Capitals came on the scene," he said. "People tend to think of the Redskins first and the others later, if at all."
It is now or never for the Capitals. Pollin's potential investors have stipulated that if the team is to operate this year, the first 10 games must be sold out and 7,500 season tickets sold by Aug. 20; Prince George's County must cut the team's amusement taxes from 10 percent to one-half of 1 percent, and the team's rent be reduced (this condition has been satisfied). Through yesterday, the team had sold 4,719 season tickets and 47,783 tickets to the first 10 games.
Despite Washington's real or imagined drawbacks, McNab said the NHL had its eye on this location back in 1963, four years before the league's original expansion to twelve teams.
"In that master plan, the NHL was looking for the biggest television markets," he said. "Even today, the Washington-Baltimore area is considered a prime market. Whether that original feeling should have been followed, who knows?"
The Capitals' cable TV territory extends to Richmond-Norfolk. Pollin said a study is being conducted on what effect cable can have on the team.
"We've got the second-largest area of influence, and all the cable companies in there have been contacted," he said. "We're looking into all those sources of revenue.
"All the better minds in the NHL have said they consider Washington one of the premier franchises in the league, when we have a good team. And, as people come out and see our games . . . " Pollin lets the hope dangle, probably envisioning sellouts and playoffs.
But if non-Redskin professionals suffer less than SRO crowds, Washington's college talent does inspire its own brand of loyalty.
The Hoyas are gaining a hold on the city's basketball audience, and the University of Maryland basketball team draws 13,500 steadfast fans, about half of them students. UDC, George Washington, American University, Howard and George Mason all have to win and sell to fill their arenas.
In college football, according to Jerry Claiborne, former Maryland coach, "We didn't sell so many season tickets, but the ones who took them were intense about it.
"Washington is a real Redskins town, no question. But I think it's an excellent area. One problem is that so many teams are vying for the entertainment dollar--Maryland, Georgetown, Western Maryland, Annapolis (Navy), plus all the high school teams, and the Bullets, the Caps. And the Baltimore teams. All in this one little space."
Claiborne isn't sure why the teams aren't the toast of the town, but thinks, "Maybe, if there weren't quite so many of them, one or two would be supported greatly. Maybe."
Maryland football, which is unable to produce sellouts, even against bowl teams, is in the process of glamorizing its image through new uniforms and its second celebrity advertising campaign. Last year Rodney Dangerfield tried to increase ticket sales; now it's Susan Anton's turn.
But without the equivalent of a Patrick Ewing, or a wild tear toward a national title, a college team here is unlikely to attract the support a club in Charlottesville or Chapel Hill would enjoy.
"It's a lot like politicians here," said Rienzo. "Some dignitaries can come in and out without much attention. For others, the town goes crazy. Either way, the reaction is genuine. People may not be as readily excited, but they still mean it."