Thursday, December 30, 2010

Top Ten Stories of 2010 -- Number 10: Sold Out!

It was not that long ago that the Washington Capitals were the steaming piles of stuff that couldn’t draw flies. In the last season the Caps made the playoffs before the lockout – 2002-2003 – they ranked 18th among 30 teams in the NHL in attendance. As bad as it was, they were fewer than 800 fans a night from leading the Southeast Division in paid attendance.

It got worse, though. In 2003-2004 the Caps finished 25th in the league in attendance. After the lockout not even the debut of Alex Ovechkin could move the needle north. In 2005-2006 the Caps – perhaps a combination of fans aggravated by the lockout and low expectations for success – dropped further in the attendance rankings, losing more than 800 more fans per game (from 14,720 to 13,905) to finish ranked 28th in attendance. 2006-2007 was little better, up one in the rankings. 2007-2008 might have been another lackluster year at the gate, but the Caps put together a run unprecedented in team history to secure a playoff spot. The last four games of that season were sellouts.

Since then, things have been a lot different at Verizon Center. In 2008-2009 the Caps finished 13th in attendance and played to almost 97 percent capacity. Last season the Caps finished 11th in attendance and sold every seat. You might remember this date – March 3, 2009. That Tuesday night against the Carolina Hurricanes was the last time the Capitals played to a less-than-sellout crowd (17,903). Since then and as this calendar year comes to an end, the Caps are in the midst of an 81-game sellout streak, regular season and playoffs (through last Thursday’s game against Pittsburgh). They are ninth in total average attendance – more than the Rangers, Penguins, and Kings, to name three teams – and one of 12 teams having played to at least 100 percent capacity so far this season – more than the Red Wings, Sabres, or Wild. With 20 home games left on this season’s schedule and the Caps heading for another playoff run, it would seem likely that the Caps will surpass 100-consecutive sellouts before the regular season concludes.

But that is a story for another day. We are left with a question, though, “Is Washington – finally – a hockey town?” Well, that’s what the marketing slogan says, but we are of the mind that the jury is still out on that one. Folks might be a little quick to assume that this is the case, the current conflation of a winning team and capacity crowds leading some to think, “ah, ‘hockeytown.’” What we don’t know is how much goodwill has been built up to provide the benefit of the doubt to the club should they slide in the standings or, heaven forbid, continue to disappoint in the spring. The Caps are not yet the Redskins in that regard, and we are not aware that anyone calls Washington a “football town.” With respect to the latter, Green Bay, Wisconsin, only became “Title Town” and a legendary football town after having actually won something. The same goes for Detroit and the nickname, “Hockeytown.” Attendance alone isn’t sufficient to start applying nicknames to cities. The Colorado Avalanche sold out 487 consecutive games from 1995 until early in the 2006-2007 season. Is Denver a “hockeytown?”

But we need to be fair about this, too, and that requires looking at things in context. If you were to play word association, and someone said, “hockeytown,” chances are that you would go through a lot of towns before settling on “Washington.” Hockey has been a tough sell here for the last 30-plus years. In 34 seasons leading up to the start of the sellout streak the Caps managed sellouts in more than half their home dates only twice, none since 1995-1996. They managed to sellout more than ten games only 11 times, and this was a team with built in rivalries such as those along I-95 with Philadelphia and the three New York teams as part of the old Patrick Division. And it is not as if the Capitals have never been a winner, at least as much as they have been lately. The Caps made the playoffs in 14 consecutive seasons from 1982-1983 through the 1995-1996 seasons. They averaged just over ten sellouts a season over that period.

The current administration deserves a lot of credit for making Verizon Center the “in” place to be in Washington sports at the moment, especially without the built-in rivalries of the old Patrick Division days. The combination of a winning team playing an up-tempo style, a game that lends itself to continuous action, a downtown arena with all the amenities, a media-savvy management group that appeals to the gadget-centered culture of the moment, and business horse sense has combined to make an available seat at Verizon Center for a Washington Capitals game among the rarest commodities in Washington sports.

And that is why today, one of the top-ten stories of the season is the Caps’ ascent to the top (well, next to the Redskins) of the local pyramid in attendance, every night a sellout, a sea of red, rocking downtown DC like no other local team seems capable of duplicating at the moment or for the immediate future.

1 comment:

Paint Drinking Pete said...

Great post. I've always said that you can have the "hockeytown" debate all you want, but the the question will never be answered until there is evidence to show that the fans still show up (and tune in on TV) when the team isn't winning at the same pace and not necessarily a favorite to compete for the Stanley Cup. Well, that or enough years pass with an exciting, winning team that love for hockey becomes part of the Washington way of life...and neither of these things have happened...yet. As much as I hate to say it, if the Caps were to (God forbid) have the wheels completely fall off and miss the playoffs in the next few seasons, I'm pretty sure attendance and ratings would drop quicker than a lead balloon. Sure, a lot of us fans who were there before the recent winning ways started will still be there, but many of the casual fans will just return to go about their hockey-less daily lives. But let's just hope the Caps never give us the chance to prove me right!