Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Can Caps Make Their Move?

Observers to this market have always cited the Redskins' dominant role in Washington, about how the popularity of the city's NFL franchise is far-and-away the most successful of any team in town.

But is there a chance the Capitals could challenge the 'Skins to become THE team in town?

The last time the Capitals sustained a long-term period of popularity was during the Hall-of-Fame-studded teams of the 1980s and early 1990s, but the Caps also happened to be very good at the same time when the Redskins were en route to three Super Bowl championships. While the Caps sold out the Capital Centre regularly during the stretch drive to the playoffs (and attendance would spike markedly after the 'Skins season came to a close), there was no doubt with the scarcity of tickets at RFK and which team ruled the city.

Even with blips of heavy popularity during the Caps' playoff run of 1998 and the initial arrival of Jaromir Jagr, the team is peaking in popularity, reaching heights unseen during any other point of their 35-year run in Washington, selling 18,000 tickets each to three PRESEASON games and now looking at 41 sellouts this year at Verizon Center with season-tickets sold out, an unprecedented run for the team that certainly eclipses what transpired in Landover 20 years ago.

The team even sold 5,000 tickets to Saturday's convention in Oxon Hill, when even two years ago they had trouble getting that many people to actually show up for early-season weeknight contests.

And, of course, this couldn't come at a better time in terms of comparisons with the Redskins, a team that has been hit hard with several PR disasters off-the-field with the Washington Post's ticket expose and on-the-field thanks to a winning performance that earned boos two weeks ago followed up by a loss to the lowly Detroit Lions. Many longtime Redskins fans are disenchanted with the team's direction under Dan Snyder, both with the team's seemingly greedy stance with fans and the 'Skins struggles on the field that is a shadow of the Super Bowl contender the team was 20 years ago.

While the Redskins still claim a season-ticket waiting list of 160,000, it seems more of sleight of hand than actual demand for ducats, as tickets can be had relatively easily, either by paying the team directly for the ample premium seats available or simply picking up reasonably-priced tickets on the resale market. On the other hand, the Capitals for the first time have a waiting list of their own, and while the resale market is very soft on 'Skins tickets, it certainly is robust for the Caps.

For example, tickets for the Redskins-Buccaneers game Sunday are going for as little as $25 on StubHub, while a ticket to the Capitals-Maple Leafs on Saturday are going for at least twice that.

There are other precedents for an NHL team's popularity soaring in a historically NFL market, with some mixed results dependent on the sustained run by the local hockey club.

The best example for comparison is probably the Colorado Avalanche, who arrived in Denver in 1995 and instantly became a hot ticket by capturing the Stanley Cup in their first year in the Mile High City. The Avs' timing was good as well as by capturing the state's first major professional championship, as while the Broncos were still the undisputed top team in the city (particularly with their back-to-back Super Bowl wins), the Avalanche certainly enjoyed a strong second status with a following far better than Denver's NBA and MLB franchises. Of course, that is credited to the instant success the team had and sustained for almost a decade. With the team now struggling more on the ice, some of the initial wave of popularity has shrunk, its sellout streak came to an end and is being threatened by the resurgent Rockies who threaten to make a return trip to the World Series this fall.

Another case study would be the Buffalo Sabres, whose run following the lockout was very impressive, although the team's recent personnel moves have stunted some of the team's long-term growth. With the Bills floundering for a decade, the Sabres gave the city hope of a major-league title in 2007 with the best regular-season team in the NHL, but a disappointing loss to the Senators followed by the departure of Chris Drury and Daniel Briere put a damper on it. However, like the Avalanche, while they did not overtake the Bills in popularity, the Sabres are a still a very strong No. 2 to the Bills, although there is no competition from a local MLB or NBA squad.

The Capitals are quickly becoming a strong No. 2 to the Redskins in the market, well ahead of the hapless Nationals and the rebuilding Wizards. The key to the Capitals staying there will likely depend on the team's success in the next few seasons, and their ability to finally capture the elusive Stanley Cup.

In the Caps' previous height of the mid-1980s, while the club was consistently one of the best regular-season teams, their playoff struggles dampened their overall popularity, as if there is one thing this town loves, it's a winner. While the Redskins were able to capture the championship three times, the Caps never advanced to the Finals until well after future Hall-of-Famers Mike Gartner, Scott Stevens and Rod Langway had departed.

The Caps have a unique opportunity to tap into the anger and apathy surrounding the Redskins, boosting their own stock indirectly at the expense of the NFL franchise. The team also has a unique confluence of being competitive, entertaining and also happening to have the most dynamic player in the sport at the same time.

Short-term, the Capitals are becoming a strong No. 2 in this town, lapping the Nats and Wiz, but the next step for Washington will be to capture the Stanley Cup to make it the impact more permanent, since those other two teams had their own chance to make their mark in recent years.

While the Redskins and Wizards (nee Bullets) have won championships, the city is starving for a winner, having last seen a title in 1993 when the Redskins captured Super Bowl XXVI against Buffalo, and a Stanley Cup would do a lot to attact even more fans.

The Nats made a bid at No. 2 upon their arrival to town and surprising 2005 playoff run, but clearly their on-field struggles has hurt their bid and are entrenched in the No. 3 spot. The Wizards had the short-term boost of Michael Jordan followed up by a playoff win over the Bulls, but the lack of success since followed by an injury-plagued season last year has shoved the NBA team to the basement of popularity for now.

Long-term, if the Capitals flounder in the postseason over the next couple of years, there will be some apathy generated, as fans - and the team - don't accept just getting to the postseason as being good enough anymore.

The Redskins, marred as they are, are likely to hold onto the top spot, simply due to the history and ability to hold a casual fans' attention over 16 games against an 82-game grind. The NFL franchise also has extensive reach outside the Washington market, something the Capitals don't have (although Alexander Ovechkin's popularity has certainly increased the team's profile across North America).

But, if the Capitals can take advantage of this unique opportunity and capture a Stanley Cup in short order, they certainly will be mentioned in the same breath as the town's revered NFL franchise, something that seemed unthinkable even a couple of years ago.

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