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

By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 27, 2010; D1

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."

The Wizards learned from last season, when the Arenas gun incident forced the team to remove his banner from the Sixth Street NW side of Verizon Center, and another banner featuring Jamison and Butler was pulled after the two were traded.

Winning the draft lottery provided a huge boost and allowed the team to rebuild around a young core of talented players with upside. But the Wizards have also taken extra steps to connect with fans, sending out Leonsis, Coach Flip Saunders and President Ernie Grunfeld to meet with season ticket holders throughout the offseason in a series of open houses.

Leonsis has already made some changes, both big and small, with the Wizards and the arena, such as painting the steps in the arena red, and painting the walls and support beams red and white in the Verizon Center parking garage. Grunfeld said last week that Leonsis plans to change the team colors back to the red, white and blue that the Bullets wore in their first 23 years in the Washington area. And, in his desire to connect with the fan base, Leonsis pushed to move training camp from Richmond, where it had been the past six seasons, to Northern Virginia, an important and coveted market.

Saunders provided a great opportunity to generate some buzz when he petitioned to have the Wizards' first practice at 12:01 a.m.

Plans for the pep rally followed, with the administration and staff at George Mason providing assistance. The Midnight Tip-off will be televised live on NBA TV.

"We're trying to create an event," Bibb said of the Midnight Tip-off, "that's symbolic of what we're going to try to do, on a smaller scale, 41 nights out of the year."

The Wizards will conclude training camp next Sunday with a Fan Fest that Bibb described as a "carnival." Bibb also said the Wizards would make some significant changes to game operations during the regular season by changing the lighting system and utilizing a new technology called CrowdWave.

CrowdWave is currently only used in Cleveland and measures crowd movements to allow fans to control what appears on the video scoreboard.

"We're going to work very hard to create an entire entertainment experience for our fans," Bibb said. "We as an organization are headed in the right direction. We are pleased with the results, but we have a long way to go."

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