Wizards’ losing tradition makes D.C. sports fans hesitant to embrace Washington’s NBA team
By Michael Lee and Peyton M. Craighill,
Rapper Wale Folarin has never known the Washington Wizards to do much more than provide a flirtation. His hometown basketball team has been packaged with hope and beaten down, repackaged with more hope, only to find itself in a more damaged state.
The years of disappointment haven’t stopped Wale from being an ardent supporter, however. He has formed a friendship with point guard John Wall, rocked the team’s new red, white and blue jersey in May during an appearance on ABC’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live” and frequently references the team in his music. But he still waits, and waits, and waits for a team that can be taken seriously.
“We haven’t had one of those organizations where we can say, ‘This is the year,’ ” Wale, 27, said in a recent interview. “Not in my lifetime. It’s just highs and lows.”
The lows have taken over again of late, creating an aura about the franchise that was captured in a recent Washington Post poll that reveals less than half of D.C.-area sports fans — 44 percent — have a favorable view of the team. It’s the lowest standing for the major D.C. professional franchises with the exception of D.C. United, which is judged favorably by 43 percent of area fans.
The Wizards’ standing underscores the challenge for Ted Leonsis, who took over as the franchise’s principal owner in June 2010. Leonsis has been moving aggressively to turn around the team’s fortunes but admitted to losing money in his first season as owner, when the Wizards won just 23 games and ranked 17th in the NBA in attendance. He remains confident all the same that the team will win over fans in a fashion similar to the Capitals, the city’s NHL team that he also owns. The Capitals have sold out 111 consecutive home games at Verizon Center.
“In many ways I believe D.C. is a sleeping basketball giant; the Wizards need to capture the imagination of area fans. That already has started to take place, and we have on-the-court and off-the-court plans in place to continue that growth,” Leonsis wrote in an e-mail. “The Wizards have a tremendous amount of potential. There is hope, and our fans see it.”
After years of disappointment, though, the Wizards have their work cut out for them. Just 29 percent of NBA fans in the region named the Wizards as their favorite team in the Post survey, which was taken in August shortly after the NBA locked out its players. A surprising 14 percent of the region’s NBA fans list the Los Angeles Lakers as their No. 1 team, while 9 percent name the Boston Celtics and 7 percent the Miami Heat.
“You’ve got several teams that are superior every year, almost always Celtics, Spurs or Lakers, and there is generally not the same kind of balance in the NBA as the NFL, at least at present,” said John Helble, 70, a retired State Department employee. “That discourages a lot of fans who aren’t Spurs fans or Lakers fans or Celtics fans.”
By contrast, 72 percent of the region’s NHL fans name the Capitals as their favorite team, 48 percent of the NFL fans list the Redskins and 42 percent of the soccer fans say D.C. United is their No. 1 pro team. None is even closely rivaled in popularity by a team from another city. The only exception is the Nationals, who just completed their seventh season in the District. Thirty-six percent of baseball fans say the Nationals are their top team, with 15 percent listing the Baltimore Orioles — who for more than three decades were the only MLB team in the region. The New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox each are backed by 8 percent of D.C.’s baseball fans.
Fans of the Lakers, Celtics and Chicago Bulls filled Verizon Center last season, offering “MVP” chants for all-stars Kobe Bryant and Derrick Rose and establishing a home-court disadvantage of sorts for the Wizards.
Former Wizards and University of Maryland guard Laron Profit said those reactions have been the case for several years. “I’ll never forget my first year” in 1999, he said. “We were about to run out the tunnel and Juwan Howard was like, ‘Get ready guys, we’re about to play 82 road games.’ I was like, ‘What?’ Because I’m coming from Maryland, Cole Field House, where it’s rocking and rolling.”
Leonsis, who also owns the Washington Mystics of the WNBA, said he would never use opposing teams in marketing campaigns to attract fans. “We are building a team and will advertise our brands,” he wrote. “Simply put, I want Wizards, Capitals and Mystics fans in Verizon Center. We want to develop teams that our community falls in love with and supports.”
Finding new fans
An obstacle for the Wizards, the poll suggests, is finding a way to attract the region’s newer residents. Fans living in the area for at least 10 years are more supportive of the Wizards. Among those who care at least a little about the NBA, 36 percent of long-time D.C. residents name the Wizards as their favorite basketball team, but only 9 percent of newcomers say the same.
The franchise has done a lot to reconnect with longtime fans by associating the club more closely with the Bullets’ legacy. The Wizards have established a player alumni association and in May unveiled new uniforms with a red, white and blue color scheme and a horizontal stripe that harkens back to the old design popularized by Bullets Hall of Famers Wes Unseld and Elvin Hayes. And the team’s new “D.C.” logo echoes that of the Bullets before the franchise changed its name.
Winning on the court would help as well.
“We ain’t won in a long time,” said Miles Rawls, the commissioner of Southeast Washington’s Goodman League pro-am basketball circuit. “I think it’s a curse.”
Since last reaching the NBA Finals in 1979, the Wizards have been one of the league’s most mediocre franchises, with just two playoff series victories and a regular season winning percentage of just .416.
“I love the NBA, so I’ll go because I live in D.C., but I can’t say that I’m that invested in the team,” said Alexander Patton, 32, who has lived in the District for 10 years. “However, I think if they do get good, I could see myself getting into them. It’s hard to really care, when you know the game is completely meaningless and they aren’t going anywhere.”
“A Wizards game is fun, but with a losing team, people don’t really care that much,” said Orrin Marcella, a 32-year-old lobbyist originally from Massachusetts who now lives in Northwest. “I’ve walked out of the Verizon Center not really caring and that’s not something I’m used to with sports, coming from New England. ‘The Wizards lost again. Oh well, where are we going next?’ But if they gave us something to root for, people would be more emotional about it.”
Profit said the Wizards also have lacked having a generational superstar to connect with the fans, noting how the city was most excited about the Wizards when the team had Michael Jordan and when “Gilbert Arenas was Gilbert Arenas.”
The team has a potential superstar in Wall, the top overall pick in the 2010 draft, around which to build. Indeed, a third of area sports fans have a favorable opinion of Wall, but more than six in 10 say they don’t know enough about him.
“You’ve got one guy like that and he starts some spectacular play, people will come. I’m not worried about that,” said CNN studio host Wolf Blitzer, one of the team’s most well-known fans who been a season ticket holder since 2001, when Jordan came out of the retirement to play for the Wizards.
Leonsis needs only to look as far as the Capitals to find an example of a team that turned itself around by drafting a young star — forward Alex Ovechkin — and building a winning club around him. Ovechkin, at the age of 26, is the only active Washington sports figure who is named in the poll as a D.C. hero, in the same league as such luminaries as Joe Gibbs, John Riggins and Sonny Jurgensen.
Leonsis has the best reputation among the prominent local team owners, with 41 percent of area fans expressing a favorable opinion of him, compared to 4 percent who see him negatively. Nationals owner Ted Lerner is seen favorably by 27 percent of fans, while 20 percent rate Redskins owner Daniel M. Snyder positively.
“Fans want a competitive team, and they want to be proud to call the Washington Wizards “their” team,” Leonsis wrote. “All of our teams are public trusts, and my deliverable is a franchise that reflects our great city and our passionate fans. We have set a plan in place, and our fans have embraced it. The next step is to win back more fans who have become disconnected — and we work exceedingly hard to do exactly that every single day.”
Polling analyst Scott Clement and polling director Jon Cohen contributed to this report.
In The Washington Post poll of D.C.-area sports fans. . . 25% of those living in the area 5 years or less 40% of those living in the area 6 to 14 years 49% of those living in the area 15 years or more . . . had a favorable impression of the Wizards. For a detailed snapshot of the demographics of fans of all D.C.-area teams, turn to Page D4 or go to washingtonpost.com/polls