Mystics Lead WNBA in Attendance Behind Improved Team, Sales Strategy

Fans have had more to celebrate with the Mystics having a winning record.
Fans have had more to celebrate with the Mystics having a winning record. (By Richard A. Lipski -- The Washington Post)
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By Camille Powell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Jacky Howell, a loyal and longtime season ticket holder for the Washington Mystics, has always tried to persuade friends and acquaintances to join her at Verizon Center for WNBA games. This season, it has been a lot easier to do that.

"I've been able to talk to a lot of people and say, 'Come this year. It's a different experience,' " said Howell, who sits courtside.

The Mystics (11-10) have already surpassed last year's win total, and entering Tuesday night's game against the Detroit Shock, they are averaging 11,559 fans, which is tops in the WNBA. That represents a 39 percent jump in attendance over last season, when the Mystics averaged 8,314 fans through the first 11 home games. Washington's ticket revenue is up 23 percent, according to Greg Bibb, the Mystics' chief operating officer.

"I think the difference this year is you have a team and a coach," said Howell, 55, who lives in Rockville. "You have all three things going at once: an administration that pays attention to who you are as a fan; you have a quality product on the floor with the team; and you obviously have a coach that will stay more than one year."

During the offseason, the Mystics overhauled their basketball operations, hiring Angela Taylor as general manager and longtime WNBA assistant Julie Plank as head coach, the team's 11th in 12 seasons. Taylor traded for lightning-quick point guard Lindsey Harding, a former No. 1 overall pick, and Plank installed an up-tempo, fast-breaking system of play. The Mystics drafted a former Maryland star for the second straight year, adding Marissa Coleman to a roster that already included Crystal Langhorne. Coleman, the All-Met player of the year at St. John's in 2005, has quickly become a fan favorite.

"We did a little caravan with Marissa Coleman when we drafted her [second overall], and it was supposed to serve as an introductory type of event," Bibb said. "Instead they were re-introductory, because the people who were coming to the events were largely Maryland fans and they knew her better than we did. If you sit out at a game and listen to the level of the cheers that the players get, it's very clear that Marissa has a very wide fan base already established here."

Washington led the WNBA in attendance in six of its first seven seasons -- three banners commemorating the "WNBA Attendance Champions" hang from the Verizon Center rafters -- but the organization gave away up to 30 percent of the tickets counted in those statistics.

When Lincoln Holdings took ownership in 2005, average attendance dropped to what was then a franchise-low 10,088, in part because tickets were not given away as freely. The Mystics continue to provide free tickets to their charitable partners, but they do not have a widespread comping policy, Bibb said.

Increasing ticket sales has been a priority for Bibb since he was hired in October 2007. He reworked the Mystics' front office, expanding the staff from six people to 24, and placing the majority of them -- 10 salespeople and four managers -- in the ticket sales department.

"If you don't sell tickets, PR doesn't matter, community relations doesn't matter, and, candidly, the basketball doesn't matter," Bibb said. "If you don't have people coming to see the product, nothing else works."

After five straight years of declining attendance -- from a high of 16,202 in 2002 to a low of 7,788 in 2007 -- the Mystics have experienced back-to-back seasons of growth. Washington averaged 9,096 fans in 2008, which ranked third in the league. The season ticket base is now at its highest level under Lincoln Holdings; according to Bibb, the team has approximately 4,600 season ticket holders, which leads the WNBA.

In November 2007, the Mystics started the MVP program, in which fans use their personal and business contacts to promote and sell season tickets. There are 25 people currently enrolled in the program (half of them are actively selling), and so far this year they are responsible for selling 99 season ticket packages, 30 season ticket renewals and 400 group tickets, according to community relations director Nicole Boden.

The Mystics have also paid attention to the in-arena experience and have spent more money on pregame player introductions and on halftime entertainment, Bibb said. The team created an Event Level Club behind one of the baskets, where a $75 ticket includes a hot buffet from pregame until halftime.

Still, there is no substitute sometimes for an entertaining team. Angela Mazzullo, 52, of Alexandria had season tickets for five seasons but canceled them following last year's 10-24 campaign, the Mystics' third losing season since 2005.

"Every year you would come and they would tell you that this year is going to be different, things have turned around, we made a lot of changes," Mazzullo said on Friday night, as she settled into her seat in section 111 prior to the Mystics' game against Detroit. "It just never seemed to turn around. It just kind of got to the point where I felt like it was a lost cause to renew the season tickets. It was just kind of dismaying to see them lose all the time."

But Mazzullo attended a handful of games early in the season at the suggestion of a friend, and she liked what she saw. She liked the new general manager. She liked that the Mystics were winning. And so she bought tickets to the remainder of the home games.

"When you win, fans catch on," all-star guard Alana Beard said after scoring 15 points in a 70-66 victory over Detroit on Friday. "It feels so good to walk into the gym every single day and know that you're going to have that sixth man behind you. They've done an unbelievable job of coming out every game and giving us that support and that energy when we need it.

"We want nothing more than to win for them. And I'm thinking we're doing a pretty good job right now."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company