Wizards season-ticket holders cling to optimism as team loses and prices fall

February 2, 2012

This is how chronic losing looked in the far corner of Verizon Center: In Mezzanine 413, as the Washington Wizards continued their slog through yet another lousy season, the upper-level section at a recent game was bereft of warm bodies and any buzz.

“Not a lot of people,” season-ticket holder Phil Fadul said of quiet, spacious 413, where he and his brother share a pair of second-row seats at a cost of about $1,100 for the season. There are 16 rows in the section; were there even 16 people sitting down for the game against the similarly dreadful Charlotte Bobcats?

“Two dozen,” Fadul guessed.

He gets why people aren’t flocking to 413 to see the Wizards, one of the National Basketball Association’s worst teams, at 4-18 entering Friday’s game in Toronto. “This is a frustrating team to watch,” said Fadul, 29, who works for an intellectual-property law firm in the District. “Very frustrating.”

But there’s a funny thing about the manifest misery of the Washington Wizards: They’re selling more tickets this season than last, when they were bad, but not this bad.

Average attendance for home games — measured by tickets sold, not tickets used — is up, albeit just barely: Exactly 48 more per game, according to the team.

Most of the ultra-premium courtside seats (face value: $850 to $2,500 per ticket per game) have sold out, and overall season ticket sales are up by about 20 pecent, to more than 8,000.

The majority were sold before the lockout-truncated season began. But despite the team’s odious play and the depressed resale market for Wizards tickets (some mezzanine seats have been resold for much less than the $16 Fadul paid for each of his), Fadul not only plans to renew his season tickets, but he wants better, more expensive ones.

“It [stinks] that seats are selling for like $3 and $5, but I like being a season-ticket holder,” he said. “I regretted doing season tickets when we were in that losing streak. But we’ll get better.”

Optimism is the lifeblood of professional sports fandom in the District, where winning is the exception. That’s particularly true among fans of the Wizards — the team has lost nearly three-quarters of its games since it last made the playoffs, in 2008, yet fans are aggressively selling the promise of better days . . . eventually.

The team with the second-fewest wins in the league over the past four seasons is amid a multi-year rebuilding process that majority owner Ted Leonsis insists can do for the Wizards what a major makeover did for his Capitals, who are anything but afterthoughts in the National Hockey League.

But the process will be painful, Leonsis cautioned early and often. The young Wizards opened this season with eight consecutive losses.

After a humiliating defeat in Philadelphia last week, the franchise fired head coach Flip Saunders, giving the 2011-12 Wizards the temporary distinction of having as many head coaches as wins, with two of each.

Still, in Ted they trust. At least for now.

“There could be problems [selling tickets in future seasons] with the way the team is performing, but people are willing to give Leonsis a chance,” said sports­marketing consultant Bill Sutton, who works with multiple NBA teams, although not the Wizards. “If you like the owner, you’re going to give him more sway. And the Washington market is in love with Ted Leonsis. People have an unbelievable amount of faith in him.”

Maybe not everybody.

Luke Russert, the MSNBC correspondent whose family has held Wizards season tickets since 1994, called a sports-talk show on the team’s flagship radio station weeks into the season to voice his disgust with the team’s lousy play.

“There have been a lot of bad Wizards teams since 1994; this one is so fundamentally awful, I can’t give the tickets away,” Russert said on “The Mike Wise Show with Holden Kushner” on WJFK “The Fan” (106.7 FM). Russert called the team an “abomination” and said: “I don’t see how they get better from this.”

But here’s what Russert didn’t say: whether he plans to give up his expensive seats next season.

Bargain hunter’s bonanza

Outside the arena before a recent game, nine ticket scalpers clustered near the Gallery Place Metro station exit on F Street NW, scanning for potential buyers. There were few nibbles.

“It’s easier to sell the circus than the Wizards,” one scalper said.

“We used to go get seafood after,” said another. “Now we get Oodles of Noodles. It’s all we can afford.”

“Nobody wants to see this team,” complained a third.

The scalpers declined to give their names. Inside the arena, an announcement boomed over the public-address system: “It is illegal to buy or sell tickets outside the Verizon Center.”

Not to worry, the scalpers said. “The market is dead, just like the Wizards’ season,” one declared, citing the team’s bad play and the ascendancy of Internet resale sites such as StubHub, where cut-rate tickets are plentiful and have turned buyers into bargain hunters looking for the next 30-cent ticket for an arena where the cheapest season tickets are $9.50.

Jim Van Stone, the team’s senior vice president of sales, said the infamous 30-cent tickets to a January game against the Toronto Raptors were “an extreme outlier.”

But those weren’t even the cheapest Wizards tickets sold on the site this year, according to StubHub spokeswoman Joellen Ferrer. Two first-row, 400-level tickets to the Bobcats game went for a dime each, plus fees, she said.

Seventy-three Wizards tickets have sold for less than $1, and 160 have sold for $5 or less, generally for upper-level seats at games against teams lacking serious star power. (Bargains will be harder to find for Saturday’s game against the Los Angeles Clippers and their high-flying human highlight reel, Blake Griffin, or next Friday’s game against the Miami Heat.)

“It can certainly make you cringe a little bit,” Van Stone said of the cut-rate tickets offered by season-ticket holders and others with extras. But, he said, 30 cents or even $5 is nowhere near the team’s resale average. It’s $53.89, according to StubHub — but that’s $25 less than the league’s average ticket price via the site and well below the home-game averages for the Los Angeles Lakers ($145), New York Knicks ($135) and the Heat ($116).

It’s also $10 less than the average price of a Wizards home ticket on StubHub just two seasons ago, Ferrer said, suggesting a weakening Wizards market.

The low resale prices are devaluing the team’s season tickets, said Darren Rovell, who covers sports business for CNBC.

“If you can cherry-pick on StubHub for cheaper than a season ticket, why would you stay with a season ticket?” he asked.

Brett Triplett, a 21-year-old first-time, 400-level season-ticket holder who works in the tools and hardware section at Lowe’s in North Frederick, said he has wondered the same thing.

“It’s irritating, because you see them getting in cheaper than what you actually pay for,” said Triplett, who paid just over $1,000 for his season tickets. “And the team is playing bad.”

So bad, he said, that he tried to give away his tickets to a recent game against the Boston Celtics but couldn’t find a taker. “I was asking on Facebook. I called people. I texted people,” he said. “Nobody wanted them.”

Still, Triplett said, he’ll probably renew his season tickets if he likes what the Wizards do in the draft.

Hundreds of empty seats

Leonsis, who was not made available for an interview, addressed season tickets and the secondary market in a lengthy blog post, writing that “sensationally priced” cheapies do not “accurately reflect the overall market for tickets.” He added: “Yes, we want the Wizards to perform better and improve, but I’m excited about our ticket growth. We have one of the fastest-growing season-ticket bases in the NBA.”

Through 12 home games last season, the team’s average attendance was 15,596. This year, it is 15,644.

But the NBA, as with most sports leagues, measures attendance by tickets sold, not used. At a recent game against the Denver Nuggets, there were fewer than 10 people in some 200-level sections. Announced attendance for the Bobcats game was 15,286, despite large swaths of empty seats.

The Wizards won’t disclose their exact no-show rate; the team would only say that the percentage of used tickets this season “is in the low 80s” and that the rate “is basically flat” from last year.

The real test lies ahead, when the Wizards ask season-ticket holders to pony up more money for another season of potential misery.

“The team isn’t exactly spark­ling right now,” acknowledged Diane Emerson, a paralegal who has had season tickets for five years and pays more than $1,000 for a pair in Section 433. “But I still enjoy the games.”

Really, she said. They’re “relaxing.”

But at the Board of Veterans Appeals, Emerson said, her colleagues poke fun at her fandom: “They say I’m probably the only person sitting in the arena.”

J. Freedom du Lac is the editor of The Post's general assignment news desk. He was previously a Local enterprise reporter and, before that, the paper’s pop music critic.
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