Losing Record but a Winning Gate

Despite Washington's 10-16 record, fans continue to show up, giving the Mystics the fourth-highest attendance in the WNBA, behind Detroit, New York and Los Angeles.
Despite Washington's 10-16 record, fans continue to show up, giving the Mystics the fourth-highest attendance in the WNBA, behind Detroit, New York and Los Angeles. (By Katherine Frey -- The Washington Post)
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By Katie Carrera
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 29, 2008

A list of the WNBA teams with the three highest attendance averages doesn't elicit surprise. Detroit, New York and Los Angeles have long histories of success, boast some of the premier players in women's basketball and are regular playoff contenders.

More curious, though, is that next on the list is the Washington Mystics, who have two winning seasons in their 11-year history and may not make the playoffs, yet average the WNBA's fourth-largest crowds in 2008. Fifth best is the expansion Atlanta Dream, the worst team in the league, which started its inaugural season 0-17.

Apparently winning isn't everything, especially for a league trying to put fans in the seats.

"I think everyone feels the challenge of having a team that historically hasn't performed the way you want it to perform and trying to make that a valuable commodity," said Greg Bibb, the Mystics' chief operating officer, explaining that marketing the game environment has always been just as important as promoting the team itself.

"What we try to do is maximize everything around the game," Bibb said. "If fans come and unfortunately the team doesn't do well, there's a lot of other things going on that our fans can say . . . that still made it worth my money to come to a Mystics game."

Washington resumes its regular season tonight at 7 against the Chicago Sky at Verizon Center after the league-wide, month-long hiatus for the Beijing Olympics. With eight games remaining, the Mystics (10-16) are two games out of the Eastern Conference's final playoff berth.

Although they made their third coaching change in four seasons in July, traded away their second-leading scorer three weeks ago and have failed to play consistently all season, the Mystics have seen a 15 percent jump in attendance with an average of 8,995 through the first 13 home games, up from 7,788 last year, thanks to grass-roots marketing.

The Mystics boasted high attendance numbers early in their history, but the team gave away up to 30 percent of tickets counted in those statistics before Lincoln Holdings and team president Sheila Johnson took over in 2005. Until this season, Washington's average attendance had consistently declined since 2002. Where the Mystics have found a way to reverse the trend, according to Bibb, is by emphasizing what separates a WNBA team from other sports franchises to tap into a potential fan base from the ground up.

"I think what people really like about the Mystics brand is the accessibility of our players," said Bibb, who joined the team this season. "They can engage a player on a more personal level than compared to other sporting endeavors in town with open practices and after-game events. . . . The fact that we are a female sport also makes us different."

In addition to beginning its advertising campaign for season tickets three months earlier than past years, Washington started reaching out to season ticket holders at least eight times a year seeking feedback on game experiences. The franchise also assembled a volunteer group of season ticket holders who drum up interest by word of mouth, organizing gatherings with prospective fans where they share their zeal for the Mystics and women's basketball. Atlanta has used a similar, community-oriented program to attract fans in its first year, visiting with youth basketball leagues and establishing its own volunteer sales force.

WNBA President Donna Orender said Washington's business model is "without a doubt" an example for the rest of the league. "I know Greg has fielded a tremendous amount of calls from other teams as to what some of his best practices are. . . . They've shown in a very short amount of time what kind of results a strong focus and good business strategy can bring."

While Washington and Atlanta appear to have found formulas that maintain fan interest regardless of on-court success, the rest of the league is not experiencing an upswing. At the Olympic break, the WNBA's overall attendance was up just more than 2 percent from last year, and it has dropped roughly one-third since its peak in 1998.

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