BREAKING THE ICE For first time, Caps try to market team in Baltimore area

THE BALTIMORE SUN

If there's a market for the NHL in the Baltimore area, the Washington Capitals are going to find it.

No longer feeling hand-tied thanks to the departure of the Skipjacks, the Capitals for the first time are beginning to market the team in Baltimore, hoping to entice area residents to Landover in the same fashion -- but likely on a lesser scale -- as the Orioles have lured Washington-area fans to Camden Yards.

"It is an intriguing proposition," said Capitals general manager David Poile. "We'd certainly like to be more of a regional team than we are."

Until this season, club officials had never tried to entice Baltimore-area residents to come to Capitals home games.

"We felt it was inappropriate," said Lew Strudler, Capitals vice president of marketing. "The Skipjacks were there. We were affiliated with them. We felt people knew we existed, knew we were here. And what were we going to say? 'Come see real hockey. Come see major-league hockey?' We didn't want to infer the AHL [American Hockey League] was a minor league."

But owner Tom Ebright decided to move the Skipjacks to Portland, Maine, after last season, and the Capitals no longer feel compelled to stay out of Baltimore. But they are easing their way in.

"One thing we're having to overcome has been a feeling on the part of many Skipjacks fans that the Capitals were somehow responsible for the Skipjacks leaving," said Sherri Petti, a former Skipjacks employee who is now the Capitals' regional sales manager in Baltimore.

"We've taken a slow approach and I think that's been wise. I'm starting to get more of a positive response as people realize the Capitals were not at fault.

"We had trouble selling advertising and tickets for the Skipjacks, but we always felt that was because we were trying to sell minor-league hockey in a major-league city. I think we're seeing that was the case."

Free tickets offered

The first sign of the Capitals' change in approach was the team's media guide. For the first time, players are posed for photos in locations that aren't limited to Washington. Of the 26 photos, half were taken in Maryland, including seven in Baltimore at places such as Camden Yards, the National Aquarium and the Inner Harbor.

The Capitals offered two complimentary tickets to all Skipjacks season-ticket holders and 450 turned out for the free game Friday against the Vancouver Canucks. The organization also is creating five-game ticket plans exclusively for hockey fans in Baltimore. Those plans include Sunday afternoon and Friday night and Saturday night games.

"We know that Baltimore is used to lesser prices [for hockey games] and we're offering discounts there," Strudler said. "If they're willing to go the extra mile for us, we're willing to give them a break for making the effort."

While the Capitals will not say precisely what the discounts are, Rich Grimmel, who lives in Jarrettsville, said he is delighted with the location and value of his seats. "I'm paying $25 for $33 tickets," he said.

The Capitals estimate from 8 to 10 percent of their crowds comes from Baltimore City and Baltimore, Howard and Anne Arundel counties. They want to increase that percentage, although it could be a tough sell.

Dan Brooks, a computer systems analyst for T. Rowe Price, said he and his wife decided six months ago that they would continue to keep hockey in their lives after the Skipjacks departed.

"We decided to budget the same amount of money for Capitals tickets that we had for Skipjacks season tickets," Brooks said. "Since the Capitals tickets are about three times more expensive -- and I don't believe the hockey is three times better -- that means the five-game mini-plan is what we bought. And if the AHL or the IHL [International Hockey League] came in, I'd probably shift back to Baltimore. If it was a lesser league -- the East Coast or the Colonial -- then I think I'd continue with the Capitals."

So the Capitals not only have to persuade fans to try the NHL in Landover, but they also have to convince them it is a ticket worth hanging on to.

"I don't envy what they're trying to do," said Herb McNally, president of McCready Marketing, who took his clients to old Clippers games in Baltimore until the Capitals were formed in 1974. "Hockey is a cult sport. It excludes most of the black population, a major portion of the entertainment dollar, and it is up against others who have avoided it because they don't understand it and have closed minds to it.

"On top of that, they're fighting against the Great Wall of China that runs between Baltimore and Washington. When the Capitals fired up, they took half of the Baltimore fan base and that left 2,500 or so for the Skipjacks. And those fans have to be the hardest-core fans in America.

"I think for the Capitals to have a major impact there, it will take magic."

If not magic, at least a lot of leg work. The Capitals are working on setting up group bus trips from the Baltimore Arena and from local businesses, which they hope will begin later this month.

Part of the long-term interaction with Baltimore is an effort to schedule a preseason game at the Arena in 1994. Poile calls it a starting point, adding that if the NHL continues to schedule regular-season games at neutral sites, the Capitals would propose one at the Baltimore Arena.

The Capitals also are searching for a local radio station. Games on WMAL (630 AM) in Washington cannot be heard in Columbia, not to mention points farther north.

"When I come into my office I always have two, three or five calls TC daily from fans in Baltimore asking when they are going to be able to hear our games," said Strudler. "We are desperately searching for a station."

Plans are in the works for player appearances in Baltimore and increased radio, television and newspaper advertising in the city.

Strudler said an increased Capitals presence should begin to be noticed from mid- to late-November.

Caps need attendance boost

"We know the Skipjacks had a loyal base of fans," said Strudler. "Unfortunately, it wasn't big enough or strong enough to keep the Skipjacks there. They needed more fans, like we need more fans."

Attendance at Capitals games has declined the past three seasons, and last year the team suffered the largest decrease, 8.47 percent, in the NHL. Announced attendance averaged 15,855, but the average paid attendance was 12,631. The difference, Strudler said, is about 800 tickets given away to advertisers, sponsors and players and from 1,000 to 1,200 seats in the sky suites that aren't counted.

This season, attendance is running neck-and-neck with last year's numbers over the first five home games. The Capitals have drawn 74,319, compared with 74,571 after five games last year.

"The Skipjacks had about 2,000 fans a game," Strudler said. "At the start of this season we wondered if we could get 1,000 of those fans a game. That would be from 30,000 to 40,000 new non-season-ticket holders. We're making progress."

Petti, who is responsible for tracking down new ticket buyers and new corporate sponsors, turned in her first report last month: She had sold five-game mini-plans to more than 200 Baltimore-area residents.

Lorraine Kelley, the 67-year-old president of the Skipjacks Boosters Club, has nothing but good words for the Capitals. Yet she, too, does not believe the Capitals can have much impact here.

"The Capitals have bent over backward to help Skipjacks fans," said Kelley. "They've offered us two free tickets to a game, offered us discounts. But the people who went to Skipjacks games can't afford it and the [USAir Arena] has no public transportation. So even if a lot of people wanted to go, they can't get there unless they drive, and many Skipjacks fans always used public transportation to the Arena."

Another problem is persuading Baltimore-area residents who do have transportation that a trip to USAir Arena is not a trip to the other side of the world. If baseball fans can commute from Northern Virginia to Camden Yards, reasons Strudler, hockey fans can make the drive to Landover, which he judges to be an easier trip.

"We've just got to get them used to coming here in the same way the Orioles have gotten fans over here used to going there," said Strudler. "I look at that and I feel jealous."

PRICE FOR ICE

Average NHL ticket prices, based on prices at gate:

1. Los Angeles Kings $70.20

2. Ottawa Senators $50.34

3. Anaheim Mighty Ducks $47.45

4. Dallas Stars $41.56

5. Toronto Maple Leafs $40.20

6. Chicago Blackhawks $38.60

7. Boston Bruins $35.40

8. New York Rangers $34.63

9. San Jose Sharks $34.57

10. Quebec Nordiques $33.92

11. Vancouver Canucks $33.63

12. Florida Panthers $33.13

13. Pittsburgh Penguins $32.60

14. Montreal Canadiens $30.25

15. Philadelphia Flyers $30.00

(tie) St. Louis Blues $30.00

17. Washington Capitals $29.33

18. New York Islanders $29.25

19. Tampa Bay Lightning $28.90

20. Calgary Flames $28.71

21. Hartford Whalers $28.50

22. Winnipeg Jets $27.67

23. Detroit Red Wings $27.25

24. Edmonton Oilers $27.00

25. New Jersey Devils $26.25

26. Buffalo Sabres $25.33

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