As a follow up to the debacle last night at Nationals Park, I wanted to offer a quick few comments on the difference between the Washington Nationals and another franchise, this time a local one: The Washington Capitals.
There was a time when folks weren't so enthused with Ted Leonsis and the Washington Capitals. When Ted first took over, he took the easy way out, chasing free agents and throwing money around like that would solve all the problems the franchise had.
Many of these problems were the same facing the Nationals today: underwhelming performance on the field, poor attendance, disenfranchised fans and worse, arenas filled with opposing team's fans. I remember well the 1998 Stanley Cup Finals, when the building was easily 75 percent Detroit Red Wings fans. Now, that wasn't on Ted's watch, but it was emblematic of the troubles the Caps would continue to have.
Routinely through the 90's and early 2000's, games against Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Boston and even Buffalo at Verizon Center were filled with rowdy out-of-towners and transplants living in D.C., cheering on the visitors with more gusto than any front-running Phillies fan could even imagine.
But Leonsis finally got the message and in 2004 the team shed the veteran players that were bloating their payroll and playing sluggishly. And just as important, he went to the fans and told them what his plan was for on the ice, and promised them that several years were going to be rough, but that eventually the young players and draft picks they acquired from trading off Jaromir Jagr, Robert Lang, Sergei Gonchar and Peter Bondra would lead the Capitals to a Stanley Cup of their own.
He did another thing that might have been even more critical to the success of the franchise: he listened to his most loyal customers, the season ticket holders. He gave them his e-mail address. He held "town hall" meetings. He sent out questionnaires and surveys. He said he would be transparent in the operation of his team.
And what fans told him was that they would stick around through the tough times, but things had to improve at the arena. They game-day experience had to be better. They needed to feel part of something -- not visitors in their home arena.
Ted has delivered on the game-day experience in spades. He heard the fans' voices to bring back the Red, White and Blue uniforms, but made it even better, using a simple color to form the basis of his marketing. "Rock the Red" and "Red is Caps Hockey" are more than slogans at Verizon Center. It's a way for fans to identify themselves with the team and organization.
From changing the music and entertainment during the game to blocking out-of-town area codes trying to buy tickets, Leonsis has made Verizon Center a destination for Caps fans.
Tonight, for a pre-season game, Verizon Center will be packed to the rafters with crazy Caps fans Rockin' the Red. The team sold 5,000 tickets two weeks ago at their practice facility to a rookie scrimmage with the Flyers rookies, and I counted exactly three Flyers fans in the group, and they were there with Capitals fans (oh, mixed marriages).
And forget about getting tickets to a regular season or playoff game, without paying through the nose to a few re-sellers that might have a handful of tickets.
Opposing players now count Verizon Center as one of the most difficult places to play in the league, in the ranks of storied franchises like Montreal and Toronto.
And the hockey side of it is living up to the billing as well, staffed by competent, hard-working executives.
Despite last season's disappointment in the first round of the playoffs, the Caps are poised to contend for the Stanley Cup not just this year and next, but for the foreseeable future. It's not just one draft they are counting on, or one player, but several years now of drafting, evaluating talent, and supplementing via trade and free agency.
Proof of that? Both of the Caps minor league affiliates went to the playoffs last season and their top farm club, the Hershey Bears, won their league title for the second season in a row. The system is stacked.
It's proof that if you put a quality product into the market and value your customers like they are partners in your business, you can build a large, dedicated fan base that not only buys your product, but will promote it within the market until it becomes a self-promoting community in and of itself.
Mark Lerner sits on the board of Leonsis' sports management group, Monumental Sports and Entertainment. Nats fans can only hope that Mr. Lerner someday learns a thing or two from his business partner about Product, Customer Service and Transparency.