Three or four weeks ago -- or was it three or four years ago? -- Abe Pollin told us the Capitals "must" sell 7,500 season tickets. They "must" sell out the first 10 home games. They "must" get reductions in rent and taxes. Without the alms, the owner said the Capitals would be (1) sold and moved, (2) sold and merged, or (3) banished from all creation.
Pollin now admits it would be difficult to move the team, time is so short before the season begins. It would be all but impossible to merge the team with another, because so many legal entanglements would ensue. These options, in fact, were never really options, and Pollin knew it when he started the unseemly Save the Caps From Themselves campaign.
The only real option was to wipe the Capitals off the face of the earth, as other NHL teams have done for eight seasons. That won't happen. My guess is the Capitals will play here this season because Pollin has many reasons, personal and professional, to keep them alive.
Anyone who comes out of a quadruple-bypass heart operation going full blast, as Pollin did, is a fighter. To give up on the Capitals would betray Pollin's combative nature and his love of the underdog fighting great odds (he worked to get Marvin Mandel out of the slammer early). Besides which, Pollin revels in the role of sports mogul. He wants thanks from the sports fans -- as he in his youth thanked the Griffiths for baseball -- and there won't be anybody thanking him if he folds a team.
Professionally, the business consequences of folding the team would be so costly they seem to guarantee life. If Pollin folded right now, he could sell off player contracts, but not at a profit. He only would get out from under the debts. Maybe he could have a yard sale with old shirts and sticks, but otherwise he would make no money by closing down.
By operating another year, Pollin gives himself longer to sell the team at a profit. He also gives the Capitals one more chance to do something worthwhile. Like all cities, Washington is a good sports town if its teams win and have a good sales department. If the Capitals should play well this season, the customers will buy the product. And then Pollin can take his bows for keeping the Capitals alive.
One hopes, without much reason for hoping, that Pollin will blush at the same time in the fullness of realization that he has begged for this city's money as surely as if he stood on a street corner with a tin cup.
He has collected enough loose change to make this season a financial possibility, whether or not the four would-be investors buy 50 percent of the team as promised if the four "musts" are accomplished. Even without those 50 percent investors, Pollin has extracted enough money with his subtle play on community guilt to make this season a worthwhile gamble.
Washington has lost major league baseball teams twice and soccer teams three times. By announcing his "must" list of conditions to be met to keep the Capitals here, Pollin reminded the city of those other losses. With such a loss, the theory is, a city loses not only jobs and ancillary money but a certain dynamism and spirit uniquely invested in sports teams.
The reality is that the dynamic spirit so unique to sports teams is evident only when those teams are successful.
Then the owners take bows for blessing us with their dynamic teams.
But if those teams are consistent losers, that dynamic spirit is so much balderdash. A bad sports team is no more dynamic than a bad newspaper or a bad auto dealership.
And when the team is bad, we must listen to the owner make a list of demands that reads like a ransom note. If we don't get these concessions--and it almost always includes a gift of taxpayers' money -- then we're going to move to Saskatoon on the first dogsled north.
Abe Pollin's version of this time-tested formula worked so well he already has 10 businesses and two county chambers of commerce guaranteeing sellouts for the first 10 home games. Unusual if not unprecedented, we have a city's businesses rescuing a business failing on its own merits. The Washington Post, to name one of Pollin's benefactors, did not bail out Chrysler. Toyota dealers didn't pass the hat for The Washington Star.
The Capitals' rent was quickly reduced. Come Tuesday, the Capitals' amusement tax is likely to be reduced.
All that remains is the "must" of 7,500 season tickets. The current total is 5,140.
The original deadline was this Friday. Pollin may extend the deadline (his would-be investors have no say in this; apparently they will get up the money for 50 percent of the franchise only after Pollin decides to go ahead, with details such as division of power still to be worked out).
Even without extending the deadline, the Save the Caps From Themselves campaign has been a financial success. Look at the numbers, all estimated conservatively . . .
Increase in season-ticket sales: 900 tickets at, say, $400 apiece for a total of $360,000.
Sellouts for the first 10 home games: last year's average for the first 10 games was 9,536. By guaranteeing sellouts (at $9 per average ticket), the philanthropic businesses of Washington will contribute about $58,000 a game. That's $580,000 for the bunch.
Reduction in rent and taxes: this comes to about $10,000 a game, or $400,000 for the season.
It adds to $940,000 that the Capitals didn't have last year, with another $400,000 they won't have to spend.
Pollin says he lost $3 million on the Capitals last year. (He also says he has lost $20 million on hockey in eight years. What he never tells us is if that's before taxes or after taxes, and he never, but never, tells us how much money he has made in that time with basketball, wrestling, rock concerts and horse shows at Capital Centre.)
Anyway, he now has a $1,340,000 head start on the next hockey season, and so the guess is here that he'll go on with it. You'll pardon an old softie this time, please, if he doesn't get misty-eyed about the romance of it all. It's hard to work up sympathy for a multimillionaire banging on a tin cup to save a business selling a miserable product.