The Washington Wizards have not exactly scorched the basketball court the last few years, so the team is going to try to fill MCI Center's seats with the lure of romance.
Wizards management announced yesterday that it will host five "Singles Nights" during the upcoming season, including gimmicks such as "speed dating," "breaking the ice" and a celebrity dating game in which entrants can win a date with a Wizards player, a Wizards dance team member or a member of the Baltimore Ravens.
"We're going to make it easy for people to meet people," said Susan O'Malley, president of Washington Sports and Entertainment, which has the majority ownership share of the Wizards and MCI Center. "This is a large market and there is a huge singles market in the Washington area because we're workaholics. We don't make enough time for [dating]. Look at the success of Match.com and eHarmony."
O'Malley and her marketing mavens brainstormed the idea at a recent company retreat on Maryland's Eastern Shore, where they pored over magazines and batted around new ways to bring people to see the perennially disappointing Wizards, who haven't won a playoff series in more than two decades.
"We were thinking outside the box: 'How can we get people to try the Wizards?' We've gone after the corporate market. We've gone after families. We have college night, family fun night. All of these things."
The Wizards have sold the equivalent of just over 10,000 season tickets at MCI Center, which seats 20,173, according to O'Malley. The team usually sells several thousand more tickets on a per game basis, but real sellouts have been a challenge. Four of the five Singles Nights games are during the week, which is a traditionally hard sell for professional sports teams.
David Carter of the Sports Business Group in Los Angeles said he hasn't heard of speed dating in a sports facility. "If it's tastefully done and can be reinforced with the team's marketing strategy, it just might work. You take a look at Washington and it's amazing to me the number of young professionals in that market."
Paul Swangard, managing director at the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon, said date nights have been going on at the minor league sports level for years, but he still thinks it is a neat idea.
"You're always trying to find a way to get youth and energy inside the building," Swangard said. "It just goes to show you that basketball might not always bring you inside the building, but maybe a potential bride or boyfriend will."
The first Singles Night is scheduled for the Nov. 10 game against the Orlando Magic. The $50 ticket includes a seat at the game plus an event at the F Street Sports Bar and Grill an hour beforehand. There will be events before, during and after the game. The only way to purchase tickets is on the Wizards' Web site, according to a news release.
As part of Singles Night, men will be placed in odd-numbered seats and women in even-numbered, O'Malley said. People who arrive in groups or with friends will find themselves sitting next to strangers of the opposite sex, although their friends will be seated nearby where they can be teased.
The Wizards' celebrity dating game will offer a few lucky singles the chance to date Wizards center Brendan Haywood, Baltimore Ravens safety Will Demps or a member of the Wizards' dance team.
"It's a cute idea," said Nancy Kirsch, senior vice president of "It's Just Lunch," an international dating service. "I'm not sure at the end of the day how far it can actually go for people . . . how much they are going to get to know about a person."
Kirsch said the sports-dating motif is part of a budding trend.
"I'm getting wind that it's sort of getting done a little bit," he said. "A little trend that's catching on. I'm in support of anything that's fun and safe."
O'Malley said she thinks it's as safe as any other way to meet a future bride or groom.
"There's no bigger risk than going to a bar or picking up someone at the fruits and vegetables department at Giant," she said.