Fans slow to catch Capitals' fast start, Crowds of under 10,000 don't worry O'Malley


The Washington Capitals have started the season fast. They're 9-5. They've got one of the most exciting goal scorers in the NHL in Peter Bondra. They've got one of the prettiest playmakers in Joe Juneau.

They've also got two of the best young goalies in the game and on most nights a tenacious defense.

What they appear not to have is fans.

"If they don't want to come, you can't stop them," Yogi Berra once said. And during the first month of this season, no one could.

Over that period, the Capitals drew under 10,000 fans in back-to-back games at USAir Arena for the first time in their history. Tuesday, Washington drew 8,865, the smallest home-ice crowd since a snowstorm held attendance to a record-tying low of 4,802 on Dec. 28, 1993.

"We're asking ourselves, 'What do we have to do?' said Capitals defenseman Sylvain Cote. "We're struggling for fans. It's amazing. We're 8-3, 8-4, 9-5. We want to play in front of people . . . You hear all kinds of excuses, the weather and all that stuff. But come on, we have a team here that needs to be supported. [The NFL's Cleveland Browns] moved and everyone is sad about it. This is what causes teams to move. People have to start coming to the games."

Susan O'Malley, president of Washington Sports, the umbrella organization that began operating the Capitals and the NBA Washington Bullets in August, was calm yesterday when asked about the small crowds.

"It was part of the strategy we put in place when we took over and we looked at the numbers," she said.

O'Malley said the Capitals' season-ticket base has dropped from an all-time high of 10,000 in 1990-91 to 5,000 this season. That means the possibility of 13,000 empty seats every time the doors open.

"You have a couple choices," O'Malley said. "You can have mediocre crowds of 10,000 or 12,000 every night. Or say, 'we'll go with the Bullets' strategy' -- which has worked for us -- and create sellouts and impact games. We decided to abandon the weekdays and go for the sellouts on weekends."

Abandoned is how the inside of USAir Arena looked Tuesdaagainst the Boston Bruins. It was so empty that when Bondra extended his goal-scoring streak to four games and skated to the glass to celebrate with fans, there were no fans there to high-five.

"I'm going to have to move my seat closer to the ice," sai 'D O'Malley, only half in jest. "The problem is no one is used to peaks and valleys."

Sellouts are important, O'Malley explained, because they give value to season tickets.

A sellout is expected Saturday against the Chicago Blackhawks and another is anticipated for the Nov. 17 game against the Pittsburgh Penguins. That will give the Capitals four sellouts -- as many as they managed in all of the 1993-94 season. It would be one more than they achieved in the abbreviated lockout season of 1994-95.

Though the average attendance is off about 220 from this point a year ago, O'Malley said she anticipates the number of tickets sold per game over the first 10 games to be up about 300 from the first 10 games last season.

But even with that there remains a question. Why would Capitals fans miss an opportunity to see a hot, winning team play another winning team, as fans have chosen to do several times already this season?

"It's not because we're not winning," O'Malley said. "We've got to find out what has turned off the fans."

Ticket prices for Capitals home games are in the mid-range, averaging $34.69, compared to a league high of $45 per ticket for Bruins home games.

Intent on making fans want to come to Capitals games, O'Malley said the organization is convening focus groups, asking fans what problems they see and is about to mail out its first news letters.

"We can't fix it if we don't know what it is," she said. "But we've only been at this eight weeks. I'd like to have this same conversation next April."

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