Wizards' countdown to midnight has everything to do with a new year

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By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 27, 2010

Ted Leonsis has owned the Washington Wizards for little more than three months, but the official coming-out party for his regime will be on Monday when the new-look team meets with members of the media in the afternoon and hosts an extravagant pep rally at George Mason in preparation for the first NBA midnight practice to start training camp.

Leonsis already offered a hint of what is to come, in terms of generating excitement for his franchise, when he welcomed No. 1 overall pick John Wall with an over-the-top introduction the day after the draft, complete with a police escort, red carpet entrance, balloons and screaming fans in "Game Changer" T-shirts.

But Leonsis and his marketing team have much more in store this season. The camp-opening "Midnight Tip-off" festivities - which include live music, a DJ, the George Mason marching band and food, ticket and other giveaways - are considered a test run.

"We're going to try a lot of different things," said Greg Bibb, the Wizards' executive vice president of business operations. "We're going to be innovative. Maybe some of the things we try don't work, but some of the things we try will work. And we're not going to be mundane. We're going to be dynamic in how we market this team and move this business forward."

The Wizards are already benefiting, as they rank among the top 10 in the NBA in new season ticket sales. Bibb said the team is closing in on 2,000 new season ticket holders, a significant move for a team that has won just 45 games the past two seasons.

When Leonsis signed his purchase agreement with the Pollin family to become the majority owner of the Wizards and Verizon Center last May, NBA Commissioner David Stern called it a "spectacular transition" and praised Leonsis for his ability to market and promote the NHL's Capitals.

"I think that the numbers, in terms of their season tickets, renewals and ticket sales, speak for themselves," Stern said last week. "The fans feel that this is a new season and a new era and they are rallying to support the Wizards."

One of the big selling points for the franchise is that this is a fresh start, but Leonsis does not want to move forward without reaching back and connecting with the successes of the past. The late Abe Pollin and Irene Pollin represented the history of the franchise, having owned the team since 1964.

As a newcomer, Leonsis felt the need to reach out to past greats, such as Earl Monroe and members of the 1978 championship team Wes Unseld, Bobby Dandridge, Elvin Hayes and Kevin Grevey.

In addition to establishing a Wizards/Bullets alumni association - which will include past players appearing at Wizards games, practices and special events - Leonsis has also created what he calls the "over-the-shoulder campaign" to link the past with the present. The campaign will feature pictures of Wall dribbling, with a faded image of Monroe over his shoulder; and Andray Blatche shooting, with Hayes in the background.

The primary campaign for the upcoming season is called "Live the Game" and includes three key words - swish, roar and rush - that will be used in promotional material. Leonsis said the Wizards will move away from past marketing plans that promoted opponents, or even the recent strategy of propping up the trio of three former all-stars in Gilbert Arenas, Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler.

"We're no longer three guys; we have a team," Leonsis said. "The whole organization is in it together. When you over-index on one player or one set of players, I don't think you get to be a franchise that's successful, that's built to last. You have to have that balance."


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