It’s been a long time, but the tide has turned both on and off the ice for the Washington Capitals. For the first time in five years, the Caps are back in the Stanley Cup playoffs. With one of the youngest teams in the league, some of the league’s most exciting young players and a bevy of young and talented players still rising through the ranks, the future – both immediate and long-term – looks very bright for the Capitals.
And speaking of bright, if you’ve been to Verizon Center lately, you’ve noticed a lot of bright red hues saturating the building. The good folks in the greater District area and beyond have responded warmly to this year’s Caps team, embracing the team and its players in virtually every measurable manner. They’re coming to the games, they’re watching the games on TV, they’re buying Capitals gear and merchandise, and they’re flocking to the Kettler Capitals Iceplex to watch the Capitals.
The Capitals have played in front of sold-out crowds at Verizon Center in each of their last seven home games, and in nine of their last 13 dates in the District. Attendance at Verizon Center exceeded 17,000 for each of Washington’s final 15 regular season home games, and the club’s average of 15,472 fans per date during the regular season was its best mark since it averaged 15,787 in 2002-03, the last time the Caps made the playoffs before this season.
Regular season paid attendance for Verizon Center contests went up 20%. Washington is the third-fastest growing team in the league in terms of attendance increase; only St. Louis and Chicago saw their crowds grow at a more rapid rate in 2007-08.
Not only have the crowds been large, they’ve been loud. And the players have taken notice.
“This place was electrifying tonight,” said Caps center David Steckel after Washington’s first home playoff game in nearly five years. “I have great friends in Hershey, nothing against them, but this place was rockin.”
“Tonight was the loudest it’s ever been for me,” said veteran center Sergei Fedorov – a veteran of three Stanley Cup champion teams in Detroit – after Game 1. “It’s like 60 minutes non-stop. I had a broken stick and I couldn’t hear it break because it was so loud. It was incredible support and I think those guys want it bad and we gave them enough reason to cheer for us, even when we were a couple goals down.”
It’s not just the players who are taking note.
“I thought it was the loudest I ever heard a building,” said Caps coach Bruce Boudreau after a recent home game. “Granted the buildings I’ve been in don’t hold as many people, but this was the loudest thing I’ve been in. And they were so behind the guys that this was pretty nice.”
“We’ve been around the league in so many buildings and so many places,” says John Norton, who works on NHL telecasts for the Versus Network. “Your truck is right there next to the ice or just under the stands, and it shakes in places like Edmonton, where it’s pretty crazy.
“In the Caps’ building, you’re pretty far away from the ice and you’re buried under cement, but the truck was shaking. The whole crew was shocked at how loud the building was. And obviously the game was so good, that the level stayed up the whole night. It was amazing.
“The fans are obviously behind it and with the sea of red there was a different look to the whole building from what you’ve seen in the regular season in the past.”
Washington’s “Rock the Red” campaign has been a success, ensuring the seats are filled with fans bedecked in bright red to match the Capitals’ home jerseys. The team’s merchandise sales have ranked among the best in the NHL this season. Alex Ovechkin
jerseys were the league’s No. 1 seller in March and the Caps have the second highest increase in merchandise sales this year, trailing only the Pittsburgh Penguins. Capitals sales are up 118% over last season, and merchandise sales on the team’s NHL.com store were up 99% during the period from July, 2007 to Feb. 2008.
Another plus in the Caps’ recent attendance boon was the lack of Flyers fans in the building for the first two games of the Eastern Conference quarterfinal series between Philadelphia and Washington. Flyers fans usually travel well, and have traditionally represented in large numbers at both the old Capital Centre in Landover and at Verizon Center. But with Caps fans clamoring for playoff tickets, few Philly fans were able to procure tickets for the first two games of the series. Longtime Washington media observers could not recall ever seeing fewer Philly fans in the building for a Caps-Flyers game.
Washington’s surge to the playoffs has also helped the team’s long-term attendance. The Caps have sold 2,200 new season tickets and the team’s renewal rate among current season ticket holders is 87%. Both numbers are up significantly from recent seasons, and the renewal rate is higher than it was at any point last season.
Finally, even those fans who aren’t rocking the red at Verizon Center are getting into the act. Page views on WashingtonCaps.com, the team’s official web site, have more than tripled in just a four-month span from November to March. Unique visitors have increased nearly as much, and the site is drawing significant pockets of traffic from Canada, Sweden, France and Russia.
Viewership of Caps games on television has markedly increased as well. Regular season ratings for Caps games on Comcast SportsNet were up 119% this season. Additionally, Comcast’s ratings for Capitals playoff telecasts have increased with each game. The numbers peaked for Thursday night’s Game 4 in Philadelphia, a double-overtime thriller:
3.3 rating in D.C. (76,000 households, and the highest rating for a single Caps game that CSN has on record, dating back to the HTS days of 1996-97)
3.3 among 18-49 year-old males in D.C.
1.7 rating in Baltimore (19,000 households)
Regardless of how the 2007-08 season turns out on the ice, the year will be a memorable one for the team and its fans off the ice. And the momentum gained will carry forth into 2008-09 and beyond.