By Gene Wang
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 12, 2010; 1:55 AM
Neither rain nor fog nor the threat of sleep deprivation prevented thousands from descending upon the Patriot Center late Sept. 27 in anticipation of Midnight Madness. A line stretched around the arena, and when the doors opened, eager and enthusiastic patrons filled the stands to watch the Washington Wizards conduct the first practice of the season at their new training camp home.
Those who secured seats in the first few rows welcomed rookie point guard John Wall not only with rousing applause but also by shouting, "Yeah, I follow you on Twitter."
Just off the court stood the Wizards' new majority owner, Ted Leonsis, smiling broadly and surveying a scene unprecedented in franchise history. Much of this was his handiwork, after all, with Leonsis generating buzz for the event and the season in general through social media such as Twitter rather than relying solely on conventional platforms - although local newspapers, television and radio did publicize Midnight Madness.
It's all part of an initiative to reach out to a younger fan base that is tech savvy, and the blueprint to make the Wizards a marketing hit via new media comes from Leonsis's other team, the Washington Capitals. When Leonsis purchased the Capitals in 1999, he quickly pushed the franchise into the Internet age with such moves as assigning a reporter and videographer to follow the team, effectively allowing the club to cover itself, and responding to countless e-mails and Facebook queries from fans.
"I think most people were shocked to see 4,000 people on a Monday night in the rain and fog for a Midnight Madness event," said Leonsis, who added the Wizards eventually would be providing their own "content factory" to cover the team. "We didn't advertise on television. We have a database. We have an e-newsletter. We used Facebook. We used Meetup. We used the college communication system, and we activated close to 4,000 people."
Most of them were students from nearby student housing, and it's that youthful demographic the Wizards are targeting to support a team whose longest-tenured player, Gilbert Arenas, is 28 and whose future is in the hands of the 20-year-old Wall. The rest of the roster includes eight players born in 1985 or later, several of whom are active participants on Twitter and other social media sites.
Wall, however, is clearly the main attraction, both on the court and online. His Twitter following recently swelled to more than 100,000, prompting Leonsis to suggest that number could reach 1 million-"If Ashton Kutcher can, John Wall can" he said. The No. 1 overall pick's dance bearing his name became a viral sensation on YouTube, drawing several million views.
Wall's Twitter following under the handle @jimmywa11 is nearly double that of the Capitals' Alex Ovechkin, a two-time league most valuable player who is among the most recognizable faces in the NHL and revered in his native Russia. To maintain his loyal Twitter following, Wall makes sure to post to his account frequently, including this message after Midnight Madness: "Thanks for all the fans who came out and supported tonite!!!"
"You get more followers when the season starts with your fan base out there," said Wall, who played one season at the University of Kentucky before declaring for the draft. "Twitter is good to have to talk to your fans, friends and meet other celebrities."
While Wall's soaring popularity online has been a boon to the Wizards, the retooled franchise is continuing its blitz with new media to attract season ticket holders and to grow its brand. The team's home page includes links to Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn as well as a blog and options for electronic newsletter and text messaging subscriptions.
The Wizards' Facebook page has more than 23,000 "likes," and their Twitter account has close to 13,000 followers, although they have a long way to go to come anywhere near matching some of the league's marquee franchises. The Los Angeles Lakers' Facebook page, for instance, has 3.2 million "likes," and the Miami Heat has more than 46,000 Twitter followers.
The social media outreach already is helping to generate more revenue for the team. New season ticket sales are approaching 2,000, which ranks among the top 10 in the league even though the Wizards won just 45 games the past two seasons. The franchise also is receiving more interest nationally. Examples of that include Leonsis appearing on NBA TV during Midnight Madness and the team's season opener on Oct. 28 being televised on TNT.
The Capitals, meantime, are among the elite regular season teams in the NHL after winning the Presidents' Trophy. And during that rise to prominence, aggressive use of social media has helped to increase their profile dramatically. As evidence of that, Washington will be playing in the nationally televised Winter Classic against Pittsburgh at Heinz Field on New Year's Day in what has become the NHL's premier regular season event.
A turnaround on the court, with Wall front and center, coupled with a vigorous social media push could elevate the Wizards to a higher level of national appeal, if not as prominent as their hockey counterpart.
"I want us to be the most innovative, most aggressive, most cyber-friendly of all teams, all companies," Leonsis said. "I think the Caps are looked at that way, and we want the Wizards to be looked at the same way. We're going to use as many outlets with my blog, with Facebook, with Twitter as we can."