The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

People have been knocking the Wizards attendance for 35 years

(By Brett Davis / USA TODAY Sports)

As the Wizards have zoomed from awfulness to mediocrity to above-average-ness, there have been a few surprised observations about their attendance. There were complaints about the empty seats during Game 6 of the second-round series against Indiana. There was Michael Wilbon’s long monologue on the topic: “People here don’t even want to go see them because…they’re cheating on the Redskins?” Wilbon asked. “What is it? They can’t follow more than one thing?…Somebody, dammit, ought to watch it, and not spend 24-7 in anxiety over the dog football team.”

There were the thoughts of longtime Washingtonian David Aldridge on NBA.com.

“There appears to be a lag between the Wizards’ new reality and full-throated fan support, though,” Aldridge wrote in December. “Washington was just 17th in the league in attendance before Sunday’s game against Utah, drawing a little more than 17,000 per game. That’s not unusual, and certainly not unexpected from a fan base that has every right to hold its complete support in reserve. D.C., a basketball town, has been waiting for the pro basketball team for a good long while. It can wait a little while longer to be sure.”

Last week’s game against the Bulls was a sellout, Washington’s fourth of the season. And yet — at the risk of being on the receiving end of a Ted Leonsis blog post — it’s worth noting that the Wizards remain 25th in percentage of home capacity, according to ESPN.

Anyhow, I was recently reading through the New York Times sports coverage of the late 1970s, as one does, when I stumbled upon a lengthy 1979 story about Abe Pollin, and the Cap Centre, and the Bullets. The Bullets were then the defending NBA champs, and had the best record in the league. And, lo and behold, there were plenty of complaints about attendance. Which means this has been a thing for 35 years. Among the passages:

* “The Bullets, like most other N.B.A. teams nowadays, have also had problems. For one thing, attendance has been a disappointment.”

* “Consistent with the overall drop in league attendance, there have been problems for the Washington Bullets at the Capital Centre. Attendance is up only 3 percent this season. Pollin expected more after last season’s success. The Bullets average a little more than 11,000 a game in an arena with a basketball capacity of 19,035. Says [Kevin] Grevey: ‘Around here, you’re competing with embassy parties every night. You just don’t get folks out here. It’s a long way to come to see a world champion.”

* “The owner is seated at midcourt at the Capital Centre. It is the fourth quarter. The Bullets will lose this game to the Rockets, 120-110. They are now behind by 11 points with less than 10 minutes remaining, and their fans are starting to file out. ‘Sure,’ Pollin says, ‘I get the urge to say Hey, wait a minute, come back, the game ain’t over. But they pay the price, and they can leave when they want.’ ”

* “Some aren’t showing up at all. Says Pollin, “I’m severely disappointed.” A contractor who still prides himself on the apartments he has built in the Washington area, Pollin at 55 has turned his attention to the Centre, of which he is chairman of the board. ‘We’ve got to go back and look at the situation,’ he says. ‘People should be coming to see a championship team We’ve got to find out why they aren’t coming.’ ”

* “Mike Riordan, the former Knick and Bullet, who now owns a saloon and restaurant in Annapolis, Md., says ‘I don’t hear a whole lot of people talking sports in my place. That’s not the kind of area this is.’ ”

* “Pollin, who is thin and looks somewhat like Stan Laurel when he stands next to his general manager, is sitting in his dream world, a media palace. There are advertisements for almost everything edible — Roy Rogers Rebound Contest! — or driveable. The game itself is televised simultaneously on a three-story television screen suspended above the floor. ‘I’m happy,’ Pollin says. ‘I’ve got the best team in basketball. Next I’ve got to convince the fans of that.’ “

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