Billionaire Ted Leonsis took a 40-minute break from his vacation last week to telephone a Washington Capitals season ticket holder and lobby her to renew her seats. He got an e-mail from her yesterday saying she had been persuaded.
Attention to details is the watchword for Leonsis and fellow investors Jonathan Ledecky and Dick Patrick, who yesterday finalized their purchase of the team from Abe Pollin's Washington Sports & Entertainment, which also owns the NBA Wizards and MCI Center.
"On the road to victory, you win them one at a time," said Leonsis, referring to his sales call to the season ticket holder.
The new owners purchased the team and minority interests in the Wizards and the arena, as well as first rights to purchase the other two properties when Pollin decides to sell. Leonsis's investment is $130 million, Ledecky $58 million and Patrick $9.6 million, sources said.
At a news conference yesterday, the new owners said that they must turn the Capitals around. After going to the Stanley Cup finals two years ago, the team failed to make the playoffs last season.
"It's like an election," said Leonsis, an executive at Dulles-based America Online. "We literally have to get the momentum going."
To that end, "We're looking to do three things," Leonsis said. "One, we're starting a best-practices review of what the successful teams in the league do both on the ice and with their fans. Two, we're taking a look right away at all of our marketing, from ticket pricing to the way we finance tickets to the way we present the game . . . across the board. And we have to do that very fast. And three, we're taking a look at the team . . . and what we should be doing."
The new owners said they plan to experiment with everything from ticket prices to player marketing in order to put fans in the seats. The Capitals have one of the lowest season ticket bases in the league; the club says it currently has about 6,000 season ticket holders, but there may be fewer.
For the next 12 months, Leonsis said, "We're in an incubator. We are going to throw a lot of stuff against the wall to see what works -- with the players, the team, ticket pricing, with marketing."
Leonsis said one of the first priorities is to promote some star players such as Peter Bondra and Adam Oates, both of whom should be household names throughout the area, according to agents and league sources.
"We will be doing a lot of advertising and marketing to introduce new fans to the joys of hockey, but also to market our players," said Leonsis, who plans to have his own marketing organization separate from Washington Sports & Entertainment.
Patrick is president of the Capitals, and his family has been part of the NHL for decades. He said the new owners will place more emphasis on making hockey games more popular for families, hard-core fans and for the "event fan" who jumps on the bandwagon when the team is hot.
"We have to get it so the fans of Washington really enjoy coming to watch a Washington Capitals game, and when they leave they want to come back for another game," Patrick said. "Whether we win or lose, they've had a great time, they're aware of what went on, they're aware of the players."
One place they hope to make improvements is the team's bottom line. The Capitals currently are far below the NHL's $25 million average gross revenue per team.
"That is the number we have to get to," Patrick said.
To get there, Ledecky, who also made his fortune in high tech, said he and Leonsis plan to roam the arena during every home game, approaching fans in their seats and asking them about their likes and dislikes regarding the Capitals.
"It's going to be a systematic thing . . . sitting down with the fans," Ledecky said. "I intend to be visible at the games."
Leonsis said that he hopes eventually to sell out the 19,000-seat arena, but right now there are "plenty of good seats available."