Though the Washington Mystics held a rare first-half lead during a game earlier this month, the conversation along the baseline in Section 104 at Verizon Center had nothing to do with the action on the court.
Instead, Jackie Brooks of Upper Marlboro was holding court with a dozen longtime season ticket holders, lamenting the state of Washington’s WNBA team as their red “Founding Fan” lanyards bobbed up and down in agreement.
The Mystics are celebrating their 15th anniversaryin the midst of one of the more bizzare first-to-worst freefalls women’s basketball has ever seen. Attendance at games has dropped and the team will once again lose money. Meantime, the losing has upset some longtime fans who have begun to wonder if the Mystics will ever become a consistent winner.
“It’s disrespectful, really,” said Brooks, citing the $875 she pays for season tickets. “I may give mine up if there’s not a drastic change.”
Following the 2010 season, in a cost-cutting move, Mystics managing partner and president Sheila Johnson did not re-sign general manager Angela Taylor and coach Julie Plank, the duo responsible for assembling a team that had just finished atop the Eastern Conference standings for the first time in franchise history.
Since then, the Mystics have spiraled into the worst 51-game stretch in team history; that includes a 3-14 mark this season that is the second-worst record in the WNBA. (The Mystics face the Liberty today in New York in the team’s last game before a month-long break for the Summer Olympics.)
But almost two years later, the exact reasons why Taylor and Plank were not retained remain muddled.
Johnson cited Washington’s struggling business model when she promoted Trudi Lacey, the team’s director of basketball operations, to replace both Taylor and Plank. But Johnson noted in an e-mail to The Post this week that the team tried to negotiate a new contract with Taylor, and then offered the dual GM/coach position to Plank, who turned it down.
Soon thereafter, Lindsey Harding and Katie Smith, the team’s starting back court in 2010, both requested trades. Harding, who helped lead the Atlanta Dream to the WNBA Finals last year, said this week that until Taylor and Plank were let go she had “no thought or intention of leaving D.C.”
Taylor, who no longer works in the WNBA and lives in Northern California, declined to comment on the negotiations out of respect for current players on the team that she helped bring to Washington. Plank, who is also currently out of the WNBA, could not be reached.
This season, six of the WNBA’s 12 teams have one person as general manager and coach.
“For the most part, personnel decisions and discussions are confidential — there is a limit to how open we can be about those conversations,” Johnson wrote. “We needed to respect the process and the people involved.”
Lacey, who became the team’s 12th coach and sixth GM in 15 years, has made a series of questionable moves in her attempts to rebuild the roster.
Over the past two years, she has traded for or signed nine players who are no longer on the roster and released two of the team’s three first-round draft picks. Only three players are left from the 2010 team that went 22-10: forward Crystal Langhorne and guards Matee Ajavon and Monique Currie.
“When you’re rebuilding, it is a process,” Lacey said. “When you have so many new players, it does take some time, and we are . . . working hard to create our identity.”
Lacey also had to deal with injuries that sidelined stars Alana Beard and Currie for most of the 2011 season, when the team finished with a 6-28 record. During the offseason, the Mystics elected not to re-sign Beard, the former face of the franchise, and acquired several veteran role players to buttress the roster.
Lacey’s frequent lineup shuffling has drawn the ire of fans, but her job appears secure .
“Evaluating a coach is more than simply looking at a won-loss record,” Johnson wrote. “Our roster has been handicapped, and the loss of two all-star players for the majority of the 2011 season was difficult to absorb. . . . There have been flashes of potential, but we have to strive for consistently better results.”
Sparse crowds rarely even fill half the lower bowl at Verizon Center these days, and Johnson confirmed this week that the franchise hasn’t been profitable since its inception in 1998 and will once again lose money this year.
After leading the WNBA in attendance in six of their first seven years (1998-2004), including an all-time high average of 16,202 in 2002, the Mystics averaged a league-high 10,449 fans per game last season. They rank second in the WNBA through 10 home games this year with 9,207 fans per game, behind only WNBA champion Minnesota (9,272). San Antonio (12-5), the most successful team this season to employ one person as GM-coach, ranked third in attendance at 8,407 fans per game.
The Mystics currently have 1,649 season-ticket holders, which is about 300 less than the previous two seasons and more than 900 fewer than 2008, when the team reached an all-time high of 2,593 under the stewardship of Johnson.
But Johnson maintains the team has improved its bottom line since 2010. The Mystics lead the WNBA in sponsorship revenue after recent agreements with Inova and Kay Jewelers and have combined their sales and guest services staff with the Capitals and Wizards since all three franchises are run by Monumental Sports and Entertainment, the ownership group led by Ted Leonsis.
The empty seats, though, haven’t gone unnoticed by the players.
“Who wants to come see a team that’s losing all the time? I wouldn’t want to come,” said Currie, a Washington native. “It used to be packed up to the 400 section, and they weren’t that good, either. Maybe people had enough of watching a losing team.”
Interviews with more than 20 longtime season ticket holders revealed that some fans question whether the Mystics are worth supporting anymore.
One such person is Judith Schaeffer, a 15-year season ticket holder and one of the creators of the women’s basketball blog DC Basketcases. This season, Schaeffer informed her readers that the site would no longer regularly write about the Mystics.
A courtside mainstay when Washington had losing records in 10 of its first 14 seasons, Schaeffer feels betrayed and rarely attends games anymore. The past two years are different for fans, she said, because in 2010 the organization “had finally gotten it right.”
“It’s like a morgue now,” said Schaeffer, when asked to compare the crowds now with the team’s attendance heydays. “Management put up their middle finger to the fans when they got rid of [Taylor and Plank], and I think that’s why so many people just feel utterly disrespected by this franchise to the point that it’s just destroyed the feelings of passion and affection that we felt.
“It’s gonna cost them so much more to bring back the fan base they destroyed.”