When Peter Bondra returns home to Slovakia each summer, he triggers a national media event. Reporters stake out the customs line to get first crack at the Washington Capitals winger. Camera crews wait in his driveway, on his doorstep, any place Bondra might appear. Yet when he walks the streets of Washington--the city where he has accomplished more than just about any other current area athlete--he is practically anonymous.
This is despite leading his team in goals five of the last six seasons; despite scoring 182 times the last four seasons, more than any NHL player save Philadelphia's John LeClair (195) and Pittsburgh's Jaromir Jagr (188).
Bondra's lack of local notoriety is in some ways a function of the team's lack of a sharply defined public perception. As the Capitals strive to grab the region's attention under new owners Ted Leonsis and Jon Ledecky, they vow to raise the profile of their players, specifically top talents such as Bondra, goalie Olaf Kolzig and defenseman Sergei Gonchar. They hope to put a more readily recognizable face on a franchise that advanced to the Stanley Cup finals just two seasons ago and develop brand name recognition in an organization that for years neglected marketing and promotions.
The task is formidable. As the Capitals open their season Saturday night at Florida, Leonsis and Ledecky are trying to rebuild a franchise that missed the playoffs last season, replenish one of the league's lowest season ticket bases, gain exposure for their players and reconfigure the marketing and business departments. And all the while, they are trying to escape the shadow of former owner Abe Pollin, who had owned the team since its inception and who still owns the Washington Wizards.
"Mr. Pollin basically managed his team as a centralized organization, and his organizations did well," Leonsis said. "But individually, the brands weren't really looked at as being separate entities. I come from a different school there.
"The way I think, the Wizards are a brand, and Mystics are a brand and the Caps are a brand, and they go after different audiences and have their own sets of promotions and goals. So basically we're going to manage [the Capitals] almost like a Proctor and Gamble and try to develop a brand people live and die with."
The owners are taking a dynamic approach to selling hockey in Washington. They spent their first summer on the job listening to fans and trying to respond to their concerns. They reconfigured ticket prices and season ticket packages, reducing the price of some seats as low as $10, down from $19. They have developed a Web site, set to debut this weekend, that Leonsis believes could generate significant revenue through advertising, retail and ticket sales. The site will include access to a camera mounted on the MCI Center scoreboard and a feature that lets fans see the ice from particular seats before purchasing tickets.
The game-night presentation, from music to video clips to between-period activities, will change. The new owners have brought in an organ to play music for home games, starting with the Oct. 9 home opener against the Los Angeles Kings. Fans will be able to ride the Zamboni machine between periods. The team will host a festival on F Street on opening night, with bands and entertainment. The club will start a Capitals University, which fans can attend to learn about the nuances of the game. Leonsis, an executive at America Online, gave all his players computers and e-mail accounts so that they can chat with fans online through the Web site. In time, Leonsis and Ledecky want every preseason and regular season game to be on TV.
The team has a completely new marketing department, headed by Declan Bolger, its senior vice president of business operations. Bolger, who helped build hockey's popularity in Florida, has been given hefty resources from ownership to hire staff and a big advertising budget.
One longtime member of the organization who declined to be identified said Bolger is creating a professionally run business and basically starting from scratch.
The team's goal is, in time, for the franchise to become "Our Nation's Capitals," with the Web site acting as the primary vehicle. Leonsis has said he hopes the Capitals grow via the Internet the way the Atlanta Braves emerged through having games televised nationwide on TBS cable.
"Are we going to paint the town in Caps' colors? No," Bolger said. "We'll be strategic in the type of things we do. We're not going to buy every TV spot. I don't know that everyone in this area will see Peter Bondra's face, but we're going to have a larger frequency of people who are going to know a player like Peter Bondra and know his story."
The Capitals plan to launch an extensive radio and television campaign on ESPN, CNN and major television networks touting their players, with spots directed by film veteran Doug Liman, who directed the cult film hits "Swingers" and "Go" as well as successful ad campaigns for The Gap and the Nike commercial in which Tiger Woods bounces a golf ball on the face of his club.
"It's going to be funny stuff, that's all I can tell you," Bondra said.
Of course, without a winning team on the ice, little progress can be made. Leonsis and Ledecky have consistently pledged to do whatever is necessary to build a dominant franchise. They hope that begins with a division title and playoff berth this year.
"I kind of feel like a politician, making pledges and kissing babies," Leonsis said. "And we will win this election. I'm playing to win."
CAPTION: Caps owner Ted Leonsis wants "to develop a brand people live and die with" in his new team.