From a financial and promotional standpoint, the Washington Bullets' come-from-behind victory at New Jersey in their first playoff game was the most important of the season.
That victory, more than any of the previous 43, convinced the skeptics that this young team could advance to the best-of-seven Eastern Conference semifinals against Boston. It gave the Bullets the respectability they had been striving for all season.
Attendance at Capital Centre during the regular season was a disappointment to management and the team stood to lose money. Now, with the crowds back and ticket prices raised $3--to a $14 maximum for the best seats--the team can generate enough income to pay several players' salaries.
A late-season sellout against Philadelphia increased the Bullets' attendance for the season to 370,077, their lowest since moving here from Baltimore for the 1973-74 season. The average of 9,026 a game ranked 18th out of 23 teams. Now, with one sellout against the Nets and the prospects of big crowds today and Sunday for the games with the Celtics, the club is close to the break-even point. (Based on an average of $12 a ticket, a sellout brings in approximately $210,000.)
"We had never sold out a miniseries game before," Bob Zurfluh, director of marketing, said. "But also every other playoff game we've had since moving here has been sold out and right now we're not sold out for Saturday or Sunday. We have about 4,500 seats left for both games."
In addition to the immediate revenue of ticket sales, the playoffs have a positive effect on marketing for next season.
"Selling time on radio and television will be a lot easier now," he said. "At the beginning of this season, we really had to prove ourselves. Now everybody is jumping on the bandwagon."
Before the season, the Bullets were a consensus choice to finish last in the Atlantic Division, and season ticket sales were at an all-time low. Now, there is renewed optimism for next season.
During telecasts of road games, the Bullets promote ticket sales and offer a phone number to call for immediate response. This was particularly effective during winning second-half rallies at New Jersey and Boston.
"We sold more than 1,000 tickets in each of those games," Zurfluh said. "We had 14 people here manning the phones. That gives you an indication how interest increases this time of year."
Fans, it seems, are starting to adopt the new-look, blue-collar Bullets after almost a full season of skepticism.
"These are tough economic times and a lot of people are down," said Francis (Bones) Denver, night manager of Faunsworth's, a popular restaurant near Capital Centre. "Right now, the Bullets are serving as a rallying point . . . Everybody identifies with an underdog."
"This is a team that people can get excited about," said Charlie Gilroy of Bladensburg. "They're more fun to watch than the old teams. Those guys in the past were supposed to win, grind it out and beat you. This team really has to work for everything it gets."
General Manager Bob Ferry, whose draft choices and trades were the foundations of this team, has been through the playoffs many times.
"The playoffs are a whole new atmosphere," Ferry said. "They become a social event and each game generates interest for the next one. This is what teams work for all season. This is the fun part of the season.
"This is when rivalries are built. When you play a team several times in a row, the personalities come out; the players, the coaches, even the officials.
"It's a continuing thing that you don't have during the regular season. That's why I hate to see two-of-three miniseries. I think the first two series should be three of five. That would still be a 10-game limit, but it would give teams in the first round a chance to generate more interest. This is the time of year you make fans for next season."
The attention, recognition and interest generated by playing the Boston Celtics in May is certainly a strong selling point for the Bullets, who in two weeks have become a financial success once again.