The Washington Wizards recorded their 44th MCI Center sellout in a row Wednesday night against the Cleveland Cavaliers, thanks again to Michael Jordan. But despite Jordan's presence and a much-improved team, the streak is getting harder to maintain.
Demand for the arena's 20,173 seats is softer this year than last, due in no small part to an uncertain economy and nervousness over the recent sniper attacks. There's also the "Jordan effect" -- the second year of his Washington comeback does not have the pop it did last year.
"It's harder because of the economy, the sniper and the way our schedule plays out with so many early-season home games," said Susan O'Malley, president of Washington Sports & Entertainment, the holding company for the Wizards. "I don't know that the novelty of Michael Jordan has worn off. When Michael touches the ball, the place still erupts. I don't believe the magic has worn off. It's all the other outside factors," including a scheduled home opener on Halloween.
Season ticket sales jumped by several thousand when the retired Chicago Bulls superstar announced in summer of 2001 that he would leave the front office of the Wizards, where he was the team president, to play.
The Wizards sold out every game last year, with more than 14,000 fans buying full- or partial-season ticket plans. That number has dropped by about 1,000 this year, which means that the team must depend on more last-minute walkups to sell out. The Wizards sold out both home games this season (20,173) and tonight's game against the defending champion Lakers also is a sellout.
"What we did lose this year were a number of ticket brokers and people from out of town [including Los Angeles and Chicago] who bought tickets last year," said Wizards spokesman Matt Williams. "We knew it was an aberration."
Attendance dropped toward the end of last season after a knee injury sidelined Jordan for about 20 games. The uncertainty over whether he would return this year caused some season ticket buyers to delay or cancel altogether.
The average ticket price to a Wizards game is $46.83, the 11th highest in the league, according to Team Marketing Report.
But Jordan is still the Wizards' second-highest scorer, averaging 13.2 points per game, behind Jerry Stackhouse at 24.8. That has helped draw enough walkups to keep the seats full at the MCI Center. In Wednesday night's home game against the Cleveland Cavaliers, which the Wizards won, 107-100, fans were purchasing tickets well after tip-off, Williams said.
And demand on the secondary market, where tickets are resold by licensed ticket brokers, appears to have held up. One scalper outside the MCI Center Wednesday night said ticket prices were going for face value, but the Cavaliers are a weak draw because the team does not have any major stars. Tonight's game against the Los Angeles Lakers has been sold out for weeks and street sales for tickets are likely to draw a premium well above face value.
"The premium seats in the lower level are still gone," said Marc Matthews, a spokesman for the Washington Area Ticket Brokers Association. "There's only a finite number of those lower-level courtside seats, and they are in demand."
One local ticket broker, who asked that his name not be used, said the novelty of Jordan has subsided and that the resale market is not putting as much of a premium on tickets as it did last year. But he said demand should pick up if the Wizards can put together a couple of wins.