Both the Bullets and the Caps are having unexpected trouble at the box office. We'll get to some numbers later. Any explanation must begin with the sports personality of this city. For that, let's listen to a gentleman who has studied the sports business here. He shall be nameless.
"The basic problem is sports in general," he said. "There are too many games. It's an economic necessity to play 80 games in basketball and 80 in hockey But it is overkill, and it is especially overkill in Washington - because this is a town of events, whether the events be a football game at RFK, the Marine Corps. Marathon, the lighting of the Christmas tree or a party at the Iranian Embassy.
"Sports has become almost a daily event. And in this town, people have the ability to pick and choose their events. It is more difficult to ferret out the people with money who could spend it on sports.
"Take Portland. When the Trail Blazers won the NBA two years ago, the whole Pacific Northwest was going crazy. Every game is sold out for the season. This town doesn't go crazy. We have the NFL, the NASL, the NHL, the NBA - and what we might call the 'Embassy. League.'
"The Bullets and 76ers might sell out. Or the Flyers and Caps. Well, the Iran and Saudi Arabia embassies will sell out, too. There might be 100,000 people involved in embassy parties.
"This is a unique market. It's not a city, it's not a town. It's a world community. If you stop a guy at 16th & K and ask him if he's seen the Bullets or Caps, he's liable to say, 'No, but I just flew in from China.'"
In the first six home games of their reign as NBA champions, the Bullets are down 17,002 customers from the first six games last season as perennial playoff losers. The ever-suffering Caps are down 24,001 in five games.
Abe Pollin, who owns both teams, says he is not worried. Of the Bullets, he said, "We have a good product, a great team, and the people will come out." The Caps are not great, he admits, "but they are the best we've ever had by far, they'll make the playoffs and the people will come out."
The Bullets have sold around 6,000 season tickets, a modest increase over last season. The Caps, despite an ambitious advertising campaign, are "under the halfway mark" of reaching a goal of 10,000 season tickets, Pollin said.
The Caps' difficulties are easier to understand than those of the Bullets.The hockey team is losing. Of 18 NHL teams, only one had a worse record last season. Like a lot of cities, Washington doesn't love a loser - but for a unique reason.
"This may sound whacked out," our sports man said, "but this is a town whose principal product is paper. And most of the people shuffling papers are losers. They're asking themselves, 'What am I doing playing with these papers? Why can't I be creating a sculpture?'
"So after a day of processing X-25 memoes to the Undersecretary of New Guinea Affairs, they're not going to go out and pay $9.50 a ticket to watch somebody else lose."
Basketball has an advantage over hockey in Washington, too, because it is a familiar game.
"Basketball has the superstars - Dr. J. George Gervin, David Thompson. Guy Lafleur is as good at his game, hockey, as any athlete in any sport everwas. And the Montreal Canadiens, by their record, may be the greatest sports dynasty on the face of the earth.
"In Montreal and Toronto, Lafleur is a god. In Washington, he could walk down K Street and no one would know who he was. Maybe that's because they don't know how to skate."
If losing explains in part the Caps' problems, how are we to understand the Bullets'? They won the NBA championship, yet in their home opener this season they played to nearly 6,000 empty seats. For six games, they are averaging 8,891 in an arena seating 19.035.
Only basketball addicts love the NBA in October. When a filmed news report of the home opener came on television, my 16-year-old son said, "Are they still playing?" The season had ended four months earlier, but it seemed four minutes ago.
"The overkill of games, starting in October and going to June, is an economic necessity," our sports man said again. "Otherwise, how can you pay a basketball player $800,000 a year? But the overkill makes it impossible to make each game an 'event.'
"The Cowboys-Redskins game was an 'event.' I mean, you wondered, 'Will the world exist tomorrow if the Redskins lose?" Will Washington still be here?'
"Of course, now we see it wasn't the end of the world. The real end will come in Dallas. That first game is already forgotten and the next one is the big one. At the time, though, it was everything."
That's because the Redskins, for 40 years, have sold themselves well. In contrast, our man says the Bullets botched their best opportunity.
"During the early playoffs last year - when everyone could see this was a team of destiny - they should have started TV and radio ads and put 100 salesmen on the street, selling tickets for the next season," he said.
"They didn't do it. They ran a big ad with an undertone that the fans owed it to the Bullets to buy tickets.
"The Bullets ran that ad and then they sat by the phone waiting for calls."