The Wizards shouldn’t be the least relevant pro sports team in Washington.
That’s so obvious almost no one thinks to say it, but it’s still true. This is one of the most fertile basketball recruiting areas in the country. Two traditional college basketball powers play within a few miles of the White House. A 2011 Washington Post poll of area sports fans found the NBA tied with Major League Baseball for the second-strongest interest.
And yet over the past few years, the Wizards lagged behind. They were usually last among Washington’s four major teams in local television ratings, last in attendance, last in buzz, and a decided last in random sightings of people wearing their gear. The Wizards had about two-thirds the season ticket holders of the Caps last season, plus a worse renewal rate — this in a town more famous for artisanal ice cubes than actual frozen bodies of water.
Well, things might finally, finally be changing. The Wizards’ local TV ratings remained modest last season, but they had the third-biggest increase in the NBA, according to Sports Business Journal. The team’s season-ticket renewal rate is up significantly to around 95 percent; “this was the first offseason that we’ve been kind of like the Caps,” owner Ted Leonsis said in a recent conversation. The team added more than 2,000 new season-ticket holders, too, and should have around 12,000 this year. (The Caps have had around 16,000 in recent years.) The Wizards are uniformly picked as the third- or fourth-best team in the Eastern Conference, which helped earn them a shocking 18 national TV dates this season — nearly double what they were given the past two seasons, combined.
“A lot can happen fast,” Leonsis told The Post after his first season as Wizards owner. That was six years ago. It didn’t happen fast. But something seems to be happening, or close to happening, or in the vicinity of happening: The Wizards could achieve the local relevance an NBA team in D.C. deserves.
Leonsis said he’s hopeful that a third of the team’s home games could sell out this season. With another good season on the court, he said, the team could approach a regular sellout mode in 2018. And John Wall’s recent decision to sign the four-year “supermax” extension — combined with the point guard’s gushing words about his second home town — “gives the fan base permission” to commit, in Leonsis’s words.
“All around the league, people want out, and here’s a great player who wants in long-term,” Leonsis said. “I think that signals to the fans, you can trust us, you know? You can come to games, and these players are going to be here for a long time.”
That’s what you’d expect an owner to say, but he kind of has a point. A year ago, when the Wizards missed the playoffs, it wasn’t hard to imagine the team’s young core scattering as the franchise reverted to its decades of drift. That’s why it was so easy for me, and others, to slide back into comfortable snark. (“That was a real speed bump for us,” Leonsis said of 2016. “The fan base is fragile, right? They have to believe.”)
Some skeptics remain, but the past few months have felt significant, from the first division title since the ’70s to the nationally interesting seven-game series with the Celtics. Wall was one of the most captivating figures in the first two rounds of the playoffs, reaching at least the outskirts of the NBA’s core of true stars. During the playoffs, he had the league’s 12th-best selling jersey. (No one on the Redskins, by way of comparison, is in the top 45 of NFL jersey sales.)
Leonsis compared Wall’s supermax to the megadeal Alex Ovechkin once signed with the Capitals: “It was, ‘Wow that’s different — great player wants to spend his career here,’ ” the owner said. And in a star-driven league, having an actual star — someone worthy of an ABC appearance on Christmas night — might finally start winnowing out some of those visiting-team jerseys on F Street.
“When the team wasn’t playing well, people became fans around stars. L.A. had Kobe, and so people were Lakers fans, right?” Leonsis said. “A generation needs to feel connected with the star players. And by keeping John, keeping [Bradley Beal], keeping [Otto Porter], young kids now — as they come to games and they’re watching on TV — they’ll become lifelong fans.”
“And it’s the young people that grow into it,” Leonsis said. “I mean, that’s what we saw with the Caps. While we kept the core Caps fan base, we grew a whole new fan base, and that’s what we have to do with the Wizards. I don’t know if I’m going to be able to turn someone who’s a Lakers fan, but there’s young people, young families, new people who moved into the community who love basketball. And if we have a great team …”
There’s an “if” in there, and there should be. Leonsis is right that the fan base is fragile, and second-round playoff losses only get you so far. But he’s also right that some of this is working. I know one D.C. middle-schooler who used to identify with Western Conference teams and now calls himself a Wizards fan. I see more and more kids around town in the new gear — which is already the only color scheme they remember. The Rock the Red Caps did spawn an entire generation of young hockey fans, within a decade of national pundits wondering whether that franchise should be eliminated. And an NBA team in Washington should be starting well ahead of a hockey franchise.
The Wizards need to boost the electricity in Chinatown, but they’re working on that. There’s a new director of game operations, and there are internal discussions about how to entice fans to arrive earlier, preventing all those 7:01 p.m. photos of empty seats. (Not that I know anything about that.)
As for their national TV spike, Leonsis said he didn’t explicitly request more exposure, but that as “you start to lean in” and become part of the league’s strategy, visibility will follow.
“I’ve made it clear, always: We will be great citizens of the league. Our players will play. We’ll draft and create a culture where the players want to stay,” he said. “Do [league officials] think of you? Do they trust you? Do they want you to be a part of representing the NBA? And I think these things — especially national TV games and Christmas games — are a sign that we’re getting there.”
They’re winning off the field, in other words. They better keep winning on the court if they want the momentum to continue. We all know what the complaints will be if the team takes a step back, and popularity can grow only so much if you’re forever stuck behind Cleveland and Boston.
But as three Washington pro teams prepare for new seasons, fans of the NBA team probably have the most to be excited about — for the first time in at least a decade. The Wizards shouldn’t be the least relevant pro team in town — and they might not be for much longer.
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