Two years have passed since MCI Center opened in downtown Washington amid anticipation that a new era in professional sports in the District was about to begin. But the NHL Capitals and NBA Wizards continue to struggle to succeed in the standings and at the gate.
For reasons ranging from inconsistent and often disappointing play by both teams this season, to last year's NBA lockout, to the Capitals failing to make the playoffs the year after they reached the Stanley Cup finals, the franchises have been unable to find the right formula to lure large numbers of fans to the state-of-the-art arena.
The Capitals and Wizards have been operating under separate ownership since June, when Abe Pollin sold the hockey team--and the right of first refusal to buy the Wizards, WNBA Mystics and the 20,674-seat arena when Pollin decides to disengage--to entrepreneurs Ted Leonsis and Jonathan Ledecky for $200 million.
As this season unfolds, the play of the 5-11 Wizards and 9-10-4 Capitals have resulted in thousands of empty seats--a visible sign that both teams have work to do at improving their playing skills but also regenerating their fan base from the lower third of their respective leagues.
The Capitals have sold the equivalent of about 7,000 season tickets, second to last in the 28-team NHL and down 29 percent from last year, according to NHL figures. However, team sources said this week that while attendance is down, revenues from ticket sales are up. Through their first 12 home games, the Capitals have averaged 12,348 fans per game.
Meanwhile, the Wizards' season-ticket sales had declined from 8,000 to around 6,200 in September before a fall push, according to team officials, returned the club to last year's level. The Wizards, according to NBA figures, were averaging 13,472 fans through their first eight home dates, down slightly more than 3,000 per game from last year's lockout-shortened season and down 19 percent from the arena's first season two years ago.
Neither the NBA nor NHL announces the number of no-shows (fans who have tickets but do not attend the games) but both the Capitals and Wizards certainly have their share.
To show the state of the teams' season-ticket base, the NHL requires that an expansion franchise sell a minimum 12,000 season tickets before the league will award a city a team; the NBA's requirement is 12,500.
"This certainly shows a real lack of interest in both clubs in the market, and I'm sure is not the boost Abe Pollin was looking for when he moved from Landover to downtown D.C.," said Marc S. Ganis, president of Chicago-based SportsCorp Ltd., a sports consulting firm.
Pollin and Susan O'Malley, president of the Wizards and Washington Sports and Entertainment, refused repeated requests to be interviewed for this story.
Leonsis, who is known for bringing marketing skills to America Online, told a group of Washington Post editors and reporters on Oct. 5 that in the two years since the team had moved downtown from US Airways Arena in Landover it lost much of its original fan base.
"With the road this team was going down, there wouldn't be a hockey team in this city," Leonsis said in the interview. "Originally, we talked about a five-year plan. But I think we can do this in three years. Things are progressing faster than we expected."
In an interview last night, Leonsis added: "Our ticket prices are now the most reasonable and affordable in the league. I think I've removed every impediment for fans wanting to come to the games. Name a complaint, I've addressed it."
The Capitals and Washington Sports are now two separate operations, with the hockey team planning to move its offices soon from MCI Center to an office building on H Street to create its own identity and corporate culture.
"It's better for both teams that way," said Declan Bolger, the team's chief marketer whom Leonsis hired away from the Florida Panthers earlier this year.
Bolger is putting together a small senior management group. He already has hired Trish Kerr, a seasoned community relations person from the Edmonton Oilers, and a new vice president of communications, Andy McGowan, from the NHL offices. Bolger is also going to hire an operations person to run the building on game night, a person to run ticket sales and a someone to deal with corporate sponsorships, sources said.
Bolger said the hockey team has produced several television commercials; instituted a mobile "fan cam"; bought an electronic horn that blasts when goals are scored; added an organ and organist; begun children's rides on the Zamboni ice machine; started new contests between periods and installed hockey experts on the lower and upper concourse to answer fans' questions.
America Online executive Leonsis has held at least two on-line chats, has remade the team's Web site and communicates with fans through more than 100 personal e-mails a day, answering questions, dealing with complaints and following it up with phone calls. Leonsis posted on the Internet the 125 changes he plans to make to the team, including a direct telephone line to his luxury suite during the game. Leonsis has given every one of his players laptop computers and an e-mail account to communicate with fans.
Leonsis dropped average ticket prices $11 per seat, from $52.71 to $41.03, including selling hundreds of seats behind the west goal at $25 each. That resulted in the Capitals' average ticket price dropping from one of the highest in the NHL last season to one of the lowest this year, according to team sources.
Also, star players Peter Bondra, Adam Oates and Chris Simon are featured in local television commercials.
"When Leonsis took over, I put together a fax complaint of things I thought could help the [Capitals] and he called me back the next day," said Silver Spring businessman Bob Sitnick.
Terri Lowe, 37, of Annapolis gave up her season tickets after last year but signed back up after Leonsis had a reception at MCI Center for fans who had given up their tickets.
"It's fun going again," said Lowe, who traded in her $55-per-seat season tickets for the discounted $25 tickets behind the goal.
The Wizards' marketing under O'Malley at US Airways Arena and MCI produced exceptional results through much of the decade, helped in part by smart promotions, including selling a number of discount tickets to groups, families and youngsters. O'Malley also had a strategy based on selling promotional tickets through major sponsors.
But marketers agree promotional campaigns help, but teams don't fill arenas unless they win. Due to their recent losing record, and highly publicized off-the-court incidents involving veteran guard Rod Strickland, former forward Wizard Chris Webber (now a star in Sacramento) and Juwan Howard, the Wizards have had difficulty winning new fans and keeping their old ones.
But nearly half the teams in the NBA are experiencing a drop in attendance, although average overall league attendance (16,381) is about the same as last year.
"We're feeling pretty good about things, coming off last year's shortened season," said NBA Deputy Commissioner and Chief Operating Officer Russell T. Granik. "Most teams are generally flat [even with last year]. In Washington, it's been a little disappointing. We have to believe winning is not the only factor in attracting fans. But winning certainly makes marketing easier."
The Wizards' average ticket price ($59.65) is the fifth highest in the NBA, according to the industry news letter, Team Marketing Report. That figure includes the more expensive club seats, which are good for both the Wizards and Capitals. The Wizards list their current available ticket price range from $19 to $77, but the team probably makes available as many discount tickets as any team in the NBA.
"Basketball has always been a tough sell in the Washington area because it's a football town," said ESPN analyst Fred Carter, who played two seasons for the then Bullets (1969-71) and has followed the fortunes of the team. "It's unfortunate because a lot of talent got away from them. Now they are in a position where they are forced to rebuild again. That makes it difficult.
"Abe Pollin is a wonderful man and a basketball man. But now you have to hang out the shingle and announce you're remodeling. They [the Wizards] have to say, 'Be patient and and grow with us.' "
"The window of opportunity was there with Chris [Webber] and Rasheed [Wallace] and Juwan Howard. They got rid of Tom Gugliotta [and three first-round draft choices, including next year's] for Webber. Expectations were high, but weren't met. Then you get a new coach and trade for new players. You lose good, young players and replace them with veterans who already have seen their best years. It's difficult to recover from that."
The Wizards also have contended with obstacles that were not their own making. For instance, last season's three-month lockout eliminated about half of the 82-game season, kept the NBA out of the public eye and most likely alienated some fans. In addition, the team has been coached by three men in four years: Jim Lynam, Bernie Bickerstaff and now Gar Heard. Lynam and Bickerstaff were fired. John Nash was replaced as general manager three years ago by Wes Unseld.
The combination of these factors has occasionally created a feeling of discontent among some fans, some of whom vented their frustration with loud boos during home losses last month against against Seattle and Philadelphia.
"They've been bad for so long and the excitement of moving into the MCI Center wore off when, after one year, the team still didn't deliver," said Scott Lindley, an Arlington meeting management coordinator who gave up his season tickets last year.
"No one believes moving into a new arena is the answer to everything," Granik sad.
Jody Shapiro, who runs Home Team Sports, the flagship television station that covers both teams, said there was "genuine burst of interest" when the Wizards made the playoffs three years ago and when the Capitals got to the Stanley Cup finals in 1998. "I've never seen more energy" in any arena than during that run, he added.
"I agree with Abe Pollin when he said that he built the best arena in the world in the most important city in the world," Shapiro said. "The opportunity to succeed remains."
Staff writer George Solomon contributed to this report.
An Emptier Arena
According to the leagues, the Capitals have had the largest percentage drop in attendance in the NHL since last season, and the Wizards have had the largest percentage drop in attendance in the NBA since the lockout.
Atlanta 17,516/ -- / --
Detroit 19,983/19,983/ --
Los Angeles 15,521/12,678/+22
New Jersey 14,244/15,717/-9
N.Y. Islanders 10,633/9,832/+8
N.Y. Rangers 18,200/18,200/ --
Philadelphia 19,526/19,558/ --
St. Louis 17,117/18,757/-9
San Jose 17,036/16,863/+1
Tampa Bay 14,474/10,379/+39
League average 16,133/15,979/+1
Pre-lockout/Diff. this season
Team This season/Last season/('97-98)/from '97-98
Golden State 12,445/11,873/11,887/+5
L.A. Clippers 13,660/8,610/10,105/+35
L.A. Lakers 18,624/16,577/16,620/+12
New Jersey 13,750/17,202/16,443/-16
New York 19,763/19,763/19,763/ --
San Antonio 20,153/20,485/18,021/+12
League average 16,381/16,329/16,894/-2