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Distance And Dollars

With another pair of scintillating Southeast showdowns on tap for this weekend, I figured now's as good a time as any for a little fun with geography and economics. For example, did you know that there's not a single team in the former Patrick current Atlantic) Division whose home ice is further away from D.C. than the RBC Center in Raleigh, site of tomorrow night's game against Carolina? Sure enough - the Flyers (132.41 miles), Devils (216.13 miles), Rangers (226.76 miles), Penguins (246.03 miles) and Isles (250.02 miles) all play closer to the Verizon Center (used herein to include the MCI Center) than do the 'Canes (273.93 miles), the Caps' closest geographic rival in the Southeast Division. And there's only one Eastern Conference city further from Washington than Tampa... Miami, where the Caps will be Saturday night.

Think it doesn't matter? Think again. A pregame chat with Vogs the other night had me wondering about the revenues lost (or, perhaps more accurately, that the Caps have been screwed out of) by being taken from a division with their traditional rivals and thrown in with Gary Bettman's NASCAR set.

Mind you, I'm not talking about extra travel costs - let the Western Conference teams gripe (legitimately) about that. I'm talking about lost ticket revenues. In a minute, you'll see what I mean. Let's take a look at the Caps' average home attendance against the teams in their current division since the lockout:
  1. Carolina - 15,091 (and it's probably worth noting that two of the ten 'Canes games were home openers)
  2. Atlanta - 13,181
  3. Florida - 12,836
  4. Tampa Bay - 12,192
Now for the average home attendances against their former division rivals over the same time period:
  1. Pittsburgh - 16,800
  2. Philadelphia - 15,517
  3. N.Y. Rangers - 15,278
  4. New Jersey - 13,847
  5. N.Y. Islanders - 12,282
See what I'm getting at? There are three teams in the Atlantic Division that are bigger draws at Verizon Center than any Southeast Division team and, other than Carolina (whose fans actually do travel pretty well when the mules aren't otherwise in use plowing the tobacco fields), there's not a single team in the Southeast that outdraws any of the Atlantic teams at the VC other than the Isles. Bottom line: the Caps' average attendance for home games against Atlantic Division teams since the lockout is 14,761. Against Southeast Division teams? 13,329.

Take the numbers back a bit further and it's more of the same. Since the beginning of the 2000-01 season, Atlantic teams are averaging 15,970 fans per game at the VC - Southeast teams only 14,477. Only Detroit (in four visits) has been a better Verizon Center draw than the Pens and Flyers, and the Rangers are fifth on the list (St. Louis, surprisingly, is fourth, but in only three visits). The 'Canes are seventh. Atlanta, Florida and Tampa? 23rd, 25th and 27th (Minnesota is bringing up the rear). Here's the kicker - the average attendance at the Verizon Center since the beginning of the 2000-01 season for Rangers, Flyers and Pens games has been 16,781 and for Thrashers, Panthers and Lightning games, that number drops to 14,109.

I'm no math wiz, but this all means that attendance for the Caps against their old division rivals (all five of them) is - and has for some time been - more than 10% higher than it is against their current division "rivals" (all four of them). That's an awful lot of bodies, lost revenue, asshole Pens and Flyers fans and marketable match ups.

But instead, we get the Panthers four times a year. And we get 10,526 people. In fact, of all the games the Caps have hosted since the start of the 2005-06 season against the nine teams we're talking about, six of the seven worst-attended games were against either Tampa or Florida, and the only four sellouts came against the Pens (three times) and the Rangers. [Sidenote: Would you rather see the building half-full with 10,000 Caps fans in it or sold out with 10,000 Caps fans and 8,000 Pens fans? It might be a tough call for you, but probably not as much for Ted Leonsis and company - the dollars that come in from Pittsburgh are just as green as those from D.C. (and the more dollars there are coming in, the more dollars there are to be reinvested in the team).]

Obviously some of these numbers can be partially explained by the unbalanced schedule and the lack of demand caused by a relative lack of scarcity - I have little doubt that a fourth home Devils game of the year would draw about as much as a fourth Thrashers game. But more - much more - of the issue is the distance (and, of course, the lack of history) between the Caps and any of their Southeast Division foes. Hockey in D.C. is a tough sell, to be sure. But it certainly didn't get any help the day the rest of the Patrick Division moved on without the Caps.

Update (11/30, 6:37 AM): For more of Leonsis's thoughts on the matter (and other things), check out the interview he did with William F. Yurasko last year. Great stuff.