If the Washington Capitals fail to qualify for the Stanley Cup playoffs do they risk losing a significant portion of their fan base?
The Washington, D.C. market fan base has long been a target of ridicule from other cities. Fans of other cities up and down (but mostly, up) the east coast often chide D.C. fans as being unapologetic, less-than sophisticated homers — bandwagoners if you will — cheering for the teams of the region when they’re winning and forgetting about them when they struggle. It’s a fair criticism.
This town is transient by nature. Hardly anybody that lives here is from here. Entire neighborhoods turn over every few years. It’s no secret that many families have dual allegiances: parents fans of the teams they grew up with in other parts of the country, kids rooting for the locals because that’s where they are growing up.
The situation is certainly not exclusive to hockey. The Nationals drew 35,000-plus in their inaugural season, numbers that haven’t been seen since, not even when they opened a new ballpark. Many season ticket holders wear Nats caps most of the season — except when their home team is in town. The Wizards drew heavily during the Michael Jordan years, then again when Gilbert Arenas was leading the Wiz to back-to-back playoff seasons. But lately, you can walk up and buy tickets at mid-court whenever you want them — except when the Lakers are in town.
After 13 years of inept management, even the Redskins are showing chips in the once impenetrable armor that was once the most loyal fan base, perhaps in all of American sport.
Last night at Verizon Center brought a stark reminder of how things used to be for the Caps during the bad old pre-lockout days. A large, vocal contingent of Buffalo fans rudely permeated the place, especially once the Sabres were comfortably on top. They even broke out with a sing-songy “O-V” chant when the Caps superstar botched a puck at the blue line that led to a short-handed goal for their team in the second period.
After that shorty, fans in red streamed to the exits. By the time Buffalo scored its last goal mid-way through the third period, most sections were barely half-full. And most of those that stayed were wearing a Sabres crest on their jersey. (Ed.–Check out this link for a picture of the stands.)
It wasn’t so long ago, that Stanley Cup finals series of 1998, when the building was being rocked with red — of the Detroit Red Wings. Trust me, I was there. With a Wings fan. Bitter memories of the Caps home barn filled with Flyers, Penguins, Rangers and Sabres fans are not pleasant to recall. Last night was tough to take for loyalists.
This is a delicate subject. I know there are legions of loyal, die-hard Caps fans in the region. I see them every game, read their comments on blogs, debate with them on Twitter. This isn’t about them. This isn’t about the handful of long-time fans, some of whom have been around since that first season in 1974.
But there is a significant portion of the fan base that came aboard much later, the Ovechkin era fans. These are the fans the Caps could be in danger of losing should the team sputter these last five games and miss out on the playoffs. There is a segment of these fans that feel entitled to a championship. One such person made a comment on Twitter during last night’s game that the Caps “deserve to win a Cup.”
The notion of entitlement was unintentionally perpetuated by none other than the Caps owner, Ted Leonsis, when he made his now-infamous comments on sports talk radio in Sept. 2010, “It’s just a matter of time, I believe, until we win the Cup.”
Now, I don’t blame Mr. Leonsis for believing in his team and organization, nor do I blame him for trying to bring attention to his franchise or selling his team to his fan base. That’s his job, to instill confidence in the team — and the brand.
But hockey is hard. No one “deserves” a Stanley Cup. It’s not a matter of inevitability. Mr. Leonsis has done so much for the Capitals and the game of hockey in D.C. and I have a tremendous amount of respect for him as an owner, entrepreneur and businessman, so I don’t want this to seem like a cheap shot to the guy when he’s down.
But it is instructive when analyzing the culture that surrounds this franchise.
These younger fans fell in love with the swashbuckling Capitals of the past few years, with their gap-toothed anti-hero leading the way. Now that the high-wire act has been quashed — replaced by the Jekyll-and-Hyde version we’ve witnessed this season – and the Caps merely try to outlast their opponents on a nightly basis, will the causal fans stick around? Will they be as enthused by 2-1 games (wins or losses) as they were with 7-4 games? Will they return next season if the Capitals fail to qualify for the playoffs?
Last night’s exodus in the second period, followed by the serenades of the Sabres fans in attendance had to be a warning call to this franchise and its fan base. If, in the theoretical “biggest game of the season” to date there were that many Buffalo fans able to get their hands on tickets, what happens next?
Dave Nichols is Editor-in-Chief of District Sports Page. He is credentialed to cover the Nats and the Caps, and previously wrote Nats News Network and Caps News Network. Dave’s first sports hero was Bobby Dandridge. Follow Dave’s Capitals coverage on Twitter @CapitalsDSP.