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  Success on Ice Means a Hot Ticket
By Bill Brubaker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 15, 1998; Page B10

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On the streets outside MCI Center one day last week, a scalper was asking $1,200 for a front-and-center $175 seat to Saturday night's Stanley Cup finals game between the Washington Capitals and defending champion Detroit Red Wings. Ticket brokers were asking up to $1,400 and one offered an entire 12-seat luxury box for $9,000.

"Oh, boy — we have arrived!" said Susan O'Malley, who runs Washington Sports & Entertainment for Abe Pollin, who has owned the Capitals through 24 mostly lackluster seasons. "You know, I'm not a big fan of the whole scalping concept. But the scalper prices certainly give you a gauge on the value of things, on the excitement being generated.

"And what these prices show is: Yes, we have arrived."

It's highly improbable the Capitals will win the coveted Cup: They are down 0-3 in the best-of-seven series, and only one team ever has come back from such a deficit. But even if they are swept out of the Stanley Cup finals on Tuesday night at MCI Center, the Capitals seem to have turned a corner, attracting unprecedented interest in their long-suffering team — validation that could have a large financial impact.

After Tuesday's anticipated sellout, the Capitals will have sold 200,750 tickets to 11 postseason home games, generating an estimated $15 million — and that doesn't include food, beverage and team merchandise sales. The long-term implications are even more impressive. During their trek to the Stanley Cup finals, the Capitals sold more than 36,000 tickets to next season's games: 2,000 10-game packages (top price: $600 each), 200 20-game plans (top price: $1,200 each) and 300 full season tickets (top price: $2,460 each), according to O'Malley.

"The exposure and timing of being in the playoffs — and now in the Stanley Cup finals — has been terrific," O'Malley said.

It's doubtful any NHL team needed a boost more than the Capitals, who failed to reach the playoffs last season and never came close to making the Stanley Cup finals since the team came into the league in 1974.

The Capitals lost a significant chunk of their fan base when they left US Airways Arena in Landover last Dec. 2 for the new downtown MCI Center, which Pollin, who also owns the Washington Wizards of the NBA, built at a cost of $200 million. Many suburban Capitals fans did not renew their season tickets.

In a metropolitan area with 5.2 million people and 1.9 million households, the Capitals sold only 6,668 full season tickets for the 1997-98 season — more than 4,000 fewer than the NHL club average — and 3,000 partial season plans: hard evidence to some that Washington simply isn't a hockey town.

At times this season, the Capitals struggled. They finished in fourth place in the Eastern Conference and third in the Atlantic Division with a 40-30-12 record. As always, tickets were easy to come by: The Capitals had 10 sellouts in 41 regular season home games and finished 19th out of 26 in NHL attendance, averaging 15,275 per game.

But as the team got hot in the playoffs, fans generally responded, although two games in the first series against Boston did not sell out. O'Malley also offered a number of deals for next year's tickets and distributed some free tickets to fill seats.

But on June 5, the day after the Capitals qualified for the finals, calls to the club's downtown offices were coming in so fast "we sent our switchboard girl home brain dead," O'Malley said with a chuckle, "just burned out beyond belief."

That day, O'Malley said she anonymously phoned a Maryland ticket broker to gauge interest in the team. "I called from a pay phone," she said, "and was given a price of $1,000 for a seat in the first two rows. I thought: Oh, boy, this town is excited. I had never even heard of Capitals tickets being [sold at scalper's prices] until the playoffs this season." Yesterday, even with the Capitals facing elimination, one broker was offering a prime seat to Tuesday's game for $1,100.

"Washington isn't a hockey town? I don't believe that," O'Malley said. ". . . This is a town of winners. . . . You win or you leave town. That's how this town works. And I think that mediocrity wears fans out."

As the Capitals advanced in the playoffs, O'Malley said she pushed aggressively to sell season tickets. Rather than wait until late summer, when the club usually begins its direct marketing campaign, O'Malley recently mailed a slick full-color brochure to 30,000 potential season-ticket customers.

The cover of the brochure shows all-star forward Peter Bondra superimposed on a U.S. flag. "Season tickets are where it's at," the brochure reads. "All-Stars. Olympians. Stanley Cup Champions. Your Washington Capitals hockey team is comprised of some amazing athletes."

O'Malley said she also put aside 1,000 tickets to each playoff game, including the finals, for fans buying 1998-99 season-ticket packages. For example, callers to the Capitals' ticket office last week were offered 1o tickets to each game in the finals for every 20-game package they purchased. Most of the 1,000 seats were snapped up, said O'Malley, who predicted the Capitals will sell more than 7,500 full season tickets for 1998-99.

Even if the Red Wings complete the sweep Tuesday night, the Capitals seem well positioned to pick up new sponsors. But, last week, O'Malley was quick to note that some Washington area businesses may be looking to make only short-term commitments.

"We've had a dozen restaurants contact us that want to be the official restaurant to feed the Stanley Cup winners," she said. "And they say to us repeatedly: We're going to feed you for free! I say: That's terrific. Thank you! Gosh, we're so excited that you're excited about us. But we're looking for long-term commitment. If you want to be an official restaurant then [make] a year deal or two-year deal. . . . We're not looking for a one-night stand. We're looking for a marriage."

The Capitals' success also seems to have made MCI Center a hotter venue.

Riggs Bank, for example, bought two front-and-center "founders suites" (usable for all events at MCI Center, from concerts to circuses to sporting events) for $1 million each last year. In recent weeks, a Washington area company offered to buy one of Riggs's suites for $2 million, according to a source with knowledge of the offer. Riggs turned down the offer, hoping to get an even better deal, the source said. A high-level Riggs executive, who asked not to be identified, declined last week to discuss the offer.

Meanwhile, Home Team Sports, the regional cable sports network that, along with WBDC-50, broadcasts regular season Capitals games, likely will double advertising rates for 1998-99 broadcasts as a result of the team's playoffs ratings, according to Jeff Wagner, HTS's vice president and general sales manager.

Last Tuesday's finals opener on WTTG-5 drew a 13.7 rating in the Washington market — highest ever for a Capitals game, Wagner said. That compares with a rating of less than 1 for Capitals regular season games on HTS. One rating point equals 19,000 homes.

"The 1 rating represents the Capitals' hard core hockey fans," Wagner said. "So the [13.7] was extraordinary. There's no way to prove this, but it probably included a large number of people who had never seen a hockey game before that night." Saturday night's game on ESPN drew a preliminary rating of 6.7 — a possible indication of declining interest because the Red Wings came into the game with a 2-0 series lead.

As a result of anticipated higher ratings, the cost of a 30-second spot on HTS's Capitals broadcasts likely will increase from $1,000 to $2,000, Wagner said. HTS has 50 spots to sell each game.

"Whether the Capitals win or lose [in the finals], this situation is incredible for us as long as the team is competitive," Wagner said. "It won't be great if the team gets swept and looks like dogs. But if they're competitive, there will be a larger base of fans next season." So far, the Capitals have been competitive, losing to the Red Wings by 2-1, 5-4 and 2-1 scores.

If the Capitals win Tuesday, O'Malley said she may open up MCI Center on Thursday night so fans can watch Game 5 from Detroit on the arena's large screen. It would be a charity event with a $10 admission, she said. And for O'Malley it would be yet another opportunity to exploit this season's success.

"Fans would be able to come into the arena and sit anywhere they want," she said. "And the seats that are available to buy as season tickets would be marked 'This seat for sale.' Hopefully, it would be a festive atmosphere for fans — and an opportunity to look forward to next season."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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