Della Rose’s Tavern in Canton is decorated with emblems of Baltimore’s sports passions: signed Johnny Unitas and Brooks Robinson jerseys, photos of Ray Lewis, Alan Ameche and Memorial Stadium . . . and a Washington Capitals bubble hockey game. About a mile away, a chalkboard sign outside the Hudson Street Stackhouse urges fans to “Rock the Red,” while inside a Capitals jersey hangs behind the bar. At Crazy Lil’s in Federal Hill, a Capitals flag flies above the door, and goals are celebrated with the team’s newest victory anthem — DJ Pauly D’s “Beat That Beat.”
That bars would attempt to capitalize on the region’s most successful winter team is no surprise: D.C. area restaurants have done the same in recent years, with drink specials, food giveaways and speakers blaring hockey play-by-play. But that famously provincial Baltimore would rally behind a team whose uniforms read “Washington” is, if nothing else, a marked change from the recent past.
“We’re all pretty much Baltimore fans through and through, except obviously for the Caps,” said Marc Yosua, a manager at Crazy Lil’s, whose tavern became a hockey gathering place after an employee bought season tickets three years ago.
“A lot of the other Washington teams, we have bad feelings about, but we have no bad feelings about the Capitals,” said Jason Reid, a 36-year old Baltimore native whose bedroom walls are adorned with four Ravens jerseys and one Capitals jersey.
“Baltimore’s had the Baltimore-Washington thing forever, and I’m the embodiment of that,” said Nestor Aparicio, the owner and chief executive of Baltimore’s WNST.net. “I hate the Redskins. I’ve always hated the Redskins. But I think there comes a realization for people here that if you want hockey, that’s gonna be where it is.”
And just as the Capitals have enlivened the Washington hockey market with their recent run of success, Baltimore is now paying attention to an unprecedented degree. Television ratings for Comcast SportsNet’s Capitals broadcasts in the Baltimore market have increased by 51 percent over last season and by 125 percent over two years. Since January, CSN’s Capitals broadcasts are earning a 1.08 rating in the Baltimore market — higher than they rated in the Washington market two years ago.
NBC’s New Year’s Day broadcast of the Capitals’ showdown with the Pittsburgh Penguins earned a 6.6 rating in Baltimore, behind only Pittsburgh and Washington among major markets. Capitals broadcasts now out-rate Wizards broadcasts in Baltimore, likely for the first time in franchise history, and the team estimates that at least 10 percent of full-plan season ticket holders come from the Baltimore market.
“I see a lot of Capitals jerseys around Baltimore, a lot of Capitals paraphernalia, and that has surprised me more than anything,” said Jerry Coleman, the sports director at WVIE (1370 AM), which now broadcasts about 20 regular season Capitals games and every playoff game. “The atmosphere, the environment, the interest has risen from where it was. I think it’s important for them to try to capture this market; they’d be foolish not to.”
And indeed, the Capitals are reciprocating the interest. Over the past three seasons, the team has brought players to Baltimore for autograph signings and hosted conference calls and separate media sessions for Baltimore outlets. Last month, the Capitals held a youth clinic at Baltimore’s Patterson Park, donating 40 sets of youth equipment and bringing alumni like Peter Bondra, Sylvain Cote and Yvon Labre. The club also brought its street hockey program to Baltimore community centers.
Baltimore groups regularly arrange bus trips to Capitals games — at least two Baltimore bus groups are coming to Tuesday night’s game — and the team has run promotions that appear only in Baltimore media outlets.
“That was one of the first things we started talking about once the team started getting good and selling out games: which fans haven’t we reached as well as we could have over the last five or 10 years,” said Joe Dupriest, the team’s vice president and chief marketing officer. “And that was one market that really stood out. It’s a great hockey market.”
Some of these Baltimore fans will hasten to tell you that they’re not new to the game or to the Capitals. Before moving to Ballston in 2006, the Capitals were based in Anne Arundel County’s Piney Orchard, more convenient to downtown Baltimore than downtown Washington. And through their affiliation with the minor league Skipjacks, a host of Capitals prospects played professionally in Baltimore.
“Baltimore has always had a great fan base,” said Gary Rissling, one of several ex-Capitals who settled in the city after retiring. “It’s Maryland’s team, it’s the capital’s team, and we feel a part of it.”
Still, the feeling has clearly grown in recent years. Todd Unger, a Capitals season ticket holder and the owner of the Natty Boh Gear store in Fells Point, recently introduced a “Bohvechkin” shirt to his boutique honoring the iconic Baltimore beer; it’s now available at Baltimore’s Sports Legends Museum.
“Three years ago you would have never been able to have them carry a line of Capitals merchandise, because they associated it with Washington,” Unger said. “Now it’s just totally accepted.”
Baltimore bar owners have created specialty drinks, like Della Rose’s “Rock the Red Crush” (orange vodka, fresh-squeezed orange juice and grenadine) and “Rock the Red Bombs” (vodka and Red Bull), and they report a noticeable increase in traffic during the playoffs.
“It’ll get crazy in here; it’ll be all red in here,” Dominic DeSantis, the owner of Hudson Street Stackhouse said. “Last year it was sick. We were packed in here, every night.”
And even if those fans spend their summers rooting for the Orioles and their autumns rooting for the Ravens, many have agreed to align themselves with Washington sports fans in between.
“This,” said Baltimore native Matt Zaegel, “is the one thing we can come together on.”