When Ted Leonsis bought the Washington Wizards, he didn’t pretend to be an expert in basketball. He just asked fans for patience as his basketball folks worked to rebuild the team.
What he did sell himself as was a great marketer and brander, someone who could broaden the fan base. Most Wizards fans in the D.C. area shared my optimism that with a better product on the court, and some sophisticated marketing savvy off it, the Wizards would move up from their third-class sports citizenship in the Washington region. Like most Wizards fans, I was thrilled that one of his first major decisions was a redesign of the juvenile Wizards logo and uniforms. In November and December, I started shopping for a new Wizards hat for the season figuring six months was enough time for them to get some product into the stores. I was wrong.
Let me start off with the caveat that I know next to nothing about the apparel industry outside of what they talk about in “How to Make it in America”. I don’t know how sports team apparel is licensed, how it’s made or how it makes it into stores. I just know that over six months after its introduction, and during the height of the holiday shopping season, you could find practically no new Wizards merchandise in local stores. I know I could have easily gone online, but if you are a sports team who doesn’t cater to fans shopping in brick and mortar stores in 2011, you are missing out on a significant portion of your customer base. Here is the story of a fan’s attempt to buy a Wizards hat.
I should note that the staff at each of the stores I visited was always courteous and helpful. But in at least four of the stores, when I asked the clerk where the Wizards hats were, they visibly laughed or chuckled as they shook their heads, as if I had asked what section jean shorts were in. The Wizards can’t blame the league distribution deals for the lack of hats. At nearly every store there were more hats for other NBA teams than for the Wizards. At every store there were on average multiple versions of Capitals hats for every single version of Wizards hat. As you will see, I hit nearly every major sports apparel outlet in the city.
I began my search at the Kevin Durant of shopping malls (not the most most expensive mall, but you can fill your shopping list in multiple ways), Pentagon City.
• Lids: They have every hat you could imagine in multiple styles... except a selection of Wizards hats. They carried 30 different versions of Capitals hats, and only one version with the new Wizards logo. On the other hand, they did have four different versions of Denver Nuggets hats and, I kid you not, 12 different versions of Transformers hats. Poor Ted Leonsis, apparently Bumblebee has a better distribution deal than he does.
• Champs Sports: Four different versions of Capitals hats and two old Wizards logo hats, nothing with the new version. The clerk didn’t know when the new Wizards hats would be in.
• Kids’ Foot Locker: No Wizards apparel. I mean why would a team want to sell sports apparel in stores that cater to kids? It’s not like there is any correlation between who a kid roots for as a child, and who they support when they grow up.
• Foot Locker: The clerk said they were sold out of Capitals hats and didn’t carry Wizards hats.
• Finish Line: One version of a Capitals hat and no Wizards hats.
So to recap, one of the largest malls in the D.C. area, with four stores that sold sports team apparel, had a grand total of one store with one type of new Wizards hat. Also, in the interest of fairness I went back to Pentagon City mall twice in December with the same results, plus I hit the following stores with similar results around Christmas. The Chinatown City Sports (six versions of Capitals hats, no Wizards hats), the Columbia Heights Modells (four versions of Capitals hats, one Bullets hat, no Wizards hats) and the Georgetown SportsZone (sold out of Capitals hats, one Bullets hat, no Wizards hats, and one hat for the now-defunct Washington Capitols of the old BBA who last played in 1951).
My final stop was the Wizards team store, which much to my relief had dozens of versions of new Wizards hats. So, basically the Wizards were creative enough to create some very cool products, but not sophisticated enough to get those products into stores where their fans can actually buy them. I ended up buying a hat at the store. The next day as I was checking out at 7-11 an older gentlemen behind me said “Nice hat, where did you get it, I’ve been to a couple of stores and they don’t have the new version.”
Finding a team hat may seem like a small and insignificant thing in the grand scheme of things. But those little things add up, whether it is making sure you give the score-keeper the correct team roster, boxing out on free throws or knowing how to make a defensive switch, that is what goes in to building a first-class organization.
More Wizards coverage from Washington Post Sports:
Boswell: John Wall needs some coaching up
D.C. Sports Bog: Team is taking mutiple steps back