Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Top Ten Stories of 2011 -- Number 9: "The Streak II"

On March 3, 2009, the Carolina Hurricanes defeated the Washington Capitals, 5-2, at Verizon Center. On that Tuesday night, the Caps found themselves suffering the second of what would become a four-game losing streak. But the story within the story was that paid attendance was 17,903.

It was the last game the Caps did not sell out.

Tonight, the Capitals will welcome 18,506 fans to Verizon Center (whether all of them will show up is another matter). It will be the 124th consecutive sellout for the franchise, regular season and playoffs. That is 2,276,436 tickets sold over that span of time, a number that if you brought them all together in one place would constitute the fourth largest city in the United States.*

It is a far cry from the spring of 2003, when one well-connected observer of the local hockey landscape opined:

"The market has spoken. The truth of the matter was that we worked very, very hard to expand our fan base, and it was apparent we didn't capture the imagination of a broader base of fan…We're certainly not going to increase our payroll, because there doesn't seem to be a correlation between wins and losses and attendance.''

Well, even the most astute of businessmen can be wrong from time to time, because you see, over those 123 games heading into tonight’s contest, the Caps have compiled a record covering both regular seasons and playoffs of 78-28-17. In the last three regular seasons preceding this one the Caps’ home record ranked third, first, and second last year in standing points earned. Winning and attendance seems to have gone hand-in-glove.

That unbroken string of sellouts continued over the entire calendar year about to end. But nothing lasts forever. Just ask the Colorado Avalanche. Although there are those who will contend that the Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens have not played to an empty seat at home since the discovery of ice, the Avalanche are credited with the longest streak of sellouts in the NHL at 487 games, from November 1995 to October 2006. From the 1995-1996 season through the 2005-2006 season, the Avalanche won two Stanley Cups, four times lost in the Western Conference finals, and otherwise qualified for the playoffs in each of those seasons. It was the Golden Age of Avalanche hockey with players such as Joe Sakic and Peter Forsberg firing pucks into nets and goaltender Patrick Roy keeping them out.

Any of this sound familiar (without the Stanley Cups, that is)?

In that 2006-2007 season in which the Avalanche sellout streak ended early on, Colorado did not qualify for the playoffs, the first time they failed to do so since they moved from Quebec to Denver in 1994. Over the last five seasons the Avs have seen their wins dwindle and their crowds do likewise. They currently rank 22nd in attendance, between Florida and Carolina, two locales not generally associated with being hot beds of hockey.

The sellout streak for the Capitals that started in 2009 and continues today is a combination of hard work by the front office in marketing the team, a community with considerable disposable income, and perhaps most important a team that has won more often than any Capitals team in franchise history. Three consecutive 100-plus point seasons (the first time that has been accomplished by the Caps in 25 years), a Presidents’ Trophy, and one of the best win-loss records at home over the past three seasons will go a long way to bringing fans to the stands.

The Capitals also have had the benefit of misfortune – of others, that is. Consider this. From 2009 through this past weekend the Redskins – the flagship sports franchise in these parts – posted a record of 15-32. They have not qualified for the playoffs since 2007 and have not won a playoff game since 2005. Only the most burgundy-and-gold addled fan would see a Super Bowl in that team’s near future. The Nationals have a record of 208-277 over the same span and have neither qualified for the playoffs nor posted a record above .500 since moving to D.C. from Montreal before the 2005 season. The Wizards? Over the last three full seasons they have a record of 68-178. They have not won a playoff series since 2005 and won their only championship when Jimmy Carter was President. When you are the only major professional sports team in town winning at all, and the Capitals have been that, people will notice.

Hard work and good fortune have made the Caps the “must see” sports franchise in Washington the past few years. But one has to wonder whether the winning window for the team on the ice is starting to close (they would not qualify for the playoffs if the season ended today) and whether the slippage in on ice performance coupled with the bitter disappointment of recent playoff experience would be mirrored by one in the stands, just as winning begat big crowds.

Then there is the matter of other professional teams in the area. The Redskins are still dysfunctional but draw on a reservoir of good will that might not be bottomless, but it sure is deep. The Wizards have their work to do. The Nationals, though, did show some improvement last season and could – if things break right for them – contend for a wild-card playoff berth next season. In a year or two, the Nats might be the must-see team in these parts.

The preceding discussion should not, and it does not diminish the accomplishments of the Capitals to sustain a sellout streak well over 100 games over the past few seasons. That is especially true given that this area is not nearly the hockey hot bed that places such as Boston, Detroit, Chicago, or New York might be, let alone Canadian teams. It merely points out that these things have a shelf life, and the expiration date is likely to come when it becomes clear that the on-ice product is not what it might have been a couple of years ago. But that the Capitals can sustain and did sustain that streak throughout the course of 2011 makes it one of the top stories of the year for the team.

* All numbers based on NHL game reports.

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