Mystics Hit Their Shots, But Miss the Fans

By Mike Wise
Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Alana Beard and Gilbert Arenas, the District's two most recognizable gym rats, have much in common. They are both good-looking, 24-year-old obsessive ballers. Their youth, confidence and charisma ooze "Face of the Franchise." And in one of those endearing local hoops twists, they're also good friends. They often socialize at 1 a.m. while releasing jump shots on opposite ends of a court they can't seem to leave.

But it's no secret which player's team usually fills the building while the other hopes her good friend will show up at a game.

"Hey, old buddy," the Mystics star called out to Arenas on Sunday night. She stood on a balcony facing the Verizon Center practice court, where Arenas was working out.

Arenas smiled before confessing he had not seen the Mystics move to 7-0 at home on Sunday night. He missed how Beard, Nikki Teasley and their teammates worked, dug in and won against the very good Connecticut Sun.

He wasn't the only fan not at the game, which drew an announced crowd of 7,216. Thousands are missing Beard and the Mystics this season, moreso than any other year in the team's history.

Just so we're clear, this isn't one of those "why can't the women draw like the men" rants, because the differences go much deeper than gender. The NBA is a time-tested product going on 60. At barely 10 years old, the WNBA is still in its relative infancy as a sports commodity.

This is about marketing a product, not a cause. Beyond Beard's face plastered in a Metro station and the occasional day-of-game ad, a harder sell is needed for the league now that the novelty of professional women's basketball has worn off.

"In my eyes, she is a franchise player," Arenas said of Beard on Sunday. "But it's hard to know that, you know. When they start really promoting her, that'll be good. They've got to do some more of this promotion stuff. As soon as they start putting her face out there, people will know, 'Alana Beard, Mystics.' "

The Mystics are drawing an average of 6,838 fans, which is in step with league averages but way down over their huge numbers of the early years when they led the league in attendance six times in their first eight seasons. They averaged more than 10,000 just last year and in 2002 pulled in more than 16,000 fans per game -- still a WNBA record.

Of course, those numbers were inflated with massive giveaways; sometimes as much as 30 percent of the building did not pay for tickets. Before Abe Pollin sold the club to Sheila Johnson last year, the idea was to reap from parking and concessions what he could not from ticket sales. Since Pollin still owns the building, Johnson does not see a dollar from popcorn or parking.

Johnson has halted most freebies, which hasn't been wildly popular. At least a few people I spoke to at Sunday's game, including a couple of employees, echoed a similar thought: With the Nationals attracting kids and families and the WNBA experiencing a decline in attendance the past four years, Pollin sold at the right time.

Yes and no. Attendance has leveled off as the novelty of the WNBA has leveled off. But the price of admission is no longer devalued. If the building eventually fills back up for the playoffs, it will be because the Mystics are a priority for people with many entertainment options.

The big shame of this season is not that an injury to DeLisha Milton-Jones, maybe their best all-around player, ruins any real shot the Mystics had at a title; no, they're still good enough to compete for it. The big shame is Beard plays on the best WNBA team Washington has ever had, and only a loyal core is there to witness it.

Beard has gone from a bashful rookie caught up in the team drama of Chamique Holdsclaw to a well-balanced, mature third-year pro. She has this nice, fluid, smart game that makes her a pleasure to watch and play with. She brings the ball up with Teasley, an ankle-breaking point guard who can either take her defender off the dribble and win a game, like Sunday, or make an AND1 video while the shot clock expires. Their center, Chasity Melvin, popped her jersey toward the bench after two of her 25 points on Sunday. It's those kind of antics that sell a league in need of personalities.

"The crowds in New York started to die after 'Spoon," recalled Crystal Robinson of her animated former teammate Teresa Witherspoon, with whom she played in three championship series with the Liberty. "When she retired, they lost fans. She brought in the crowd. People loved her. I can honestly say I don't see a lot of players in the league with her personality. We need more of that."

The WNBA needs other characters as well. Not just former Duke stars like Beard, who is slowly developing her edge. I'm still stunned that more stories aren't written about the league's divas, women like Lisa Leslie and Sheryl Swoopes, whom many of the WNBA's players believe need an attitude check. When Leslie comes to town, teams should take out full-page ads in anticipation. She's not just one of the most important figures in the game, a woman who scored her 5,000th career point on Sunday; Leslie could be what Shaq is to every visiting arena, the big bully trying to poke someone's eye out with her bony elbows.

Tamika Catchings, probably the best player in the women's game, is in town tonight with Indiana. But there is no buildup. Who even knows she's playing?

The league is 10 years old now. It needs to be less about the cause of women's sports and more about the business of promoting basketball and personalities. They should start with Alana Beard.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company