Tim and LaVera Sullivan are on a date night. They’re snuggled together in Seats 1 and 2, Row F of Section 113 inside Capital One Arena for a Washington Wizards game. Tim calls her “my beauty” and promises to try to keep his cool since she’s tagged along. LaVera likes certain things simply because they make him happy, and that’s why she’s by his side tonight.
They are retired and still in love, but these Wizards are messing with their marriage.
“My wife couldn’t take the losing, so she left — I don’t know — many years ago,” Tim, who has owned a variety of Wizards' season ticket plans since the 1990s, said later. “And I keep going. Hoping that something will happen.”
Over the years, LaVera has passed on so many games that fellow season ticket holders in their section — well, at least, the season ticket holders who are still coming back — wondered if the Sullivans had gotten a divorce. Tim doesn’t recognize many of the faces around him anymore; several of his friends stopped renewing years ago.
Tim, however, is no different from the other loyalists who keep renewing their ticket packages.
“We have hope. I mean, we’re fans,” he said. “Fans have hope.”
These fans have never witnessed an Eastern Conference finals game inside their home arena nor seen their favorite team win 50 games. Certain phrases trigger stress: the 2011 draft . . . four years, $64 million . . . the Wizards have traded their first-round pick. Many of them declare each year their last, no longer willing to pay for lower-bowl season tickets that have increased for five straight years and that range annually from $1,909 to $95,450. And yet here they are, faithful and frustrated in their seats on a bland November night, watching the Wizards go down by 20 points in the first quarter against the Portland Trail Blazers.
The Wizards, now recovering with a 10-14 record, started the season joylessly while piling up rancid performances, yet the long-timers keep holding on. Why?
“Clearly, there is something wrong with us mentally to keep coming out every year‚” joked 31-year-old Adam Gracia, who has held season tickets for 12 season.
Gracia was still in college when his family first purchased three seats in Section 102. As an adult, he now chips in.
“We keep coming back because you never know, it could be that one year when it finally gets turned around,” he said.
As he watched the Wizards-Blazers game from his usual position, two buddies filling the other seats, Gracia kept his phone close just in case he received a text from his wife to hurry home because their newborn baby won’t stop crying. Truth is, he was secretly rooting for his wife’s S.O.S. message.
"As much as I said I enjoy going to the games, watching this team can be miserable,” Gracia said. “I have a 6-week-old baby. She cries a lot. I would sometimes rather listen to her crying for three hours than watch them play.”
Jerry Higgins, who fist-bumps players on their way to court for pregame warm ups, is easier to please. Over the summer, the arena underwent renovations; he thought the space was fine the way it was. He’ll applaud politely even if the featured singer of the night adds too much sauce to “The Star-Spangled Banner” — “I’ve heard a lot of really bad national anthems,” Higgins said — and he’s not the type to boo even when the Wizards go into halftime down 61-42 against the Blazers. He’d be happy with a 41-41 season because he just wants to see his favorite game.
“I love basketball,” said Higgins, 61, who has owned season tickets for 19 years. “I’d watch your mother play my mother on pay-per-view and my mother’s dead. But she’s tough, so you never know.”
From the first seat in Row A of Section 116, Higgins has watched Michael Jordan say goodbye and Bradley Beal and John Wall grow up. He’s not giving up his spot, just like Jay and Willistine Brown in Seats 4 and 5 in Section 104.
The Browns have been married for 17 years and have been Wizards season ticket holders for 15. Jay has calculated a $705 annual increase from their first season, but they’re hesitant to stop renewing because hope is a powerful drug.
“I guess I’m afraid the year we decide we’re not going to do it, that’s the year they’re going to make it. Is it being addicted? I don’t know,” Willistine said. “Maybe we’re Wizards addicts, I don’t know.”
According to a team spokesman, the overall retention rate of season ticket renewals has remained relatively constant while growth of overall season tickets has steadily increased since the start of the Monumental Sports & Entertainment era in 2010. The company does not release specific numbers, but anecdotal evidence suggests that renewals have decreased in the 2018-19 season.
Washington ranks 22nd in the league with an average home audience of 16,442 fans, down from 17,973 during the 2017-18 season, according to attendance figures. While the team has reported two sellouts inside the arena that holds a capacity of 20,409 people — the Oct. 18 home opener against the Miami Heat and Nov. 2 matchup against the Oklahoma City Thunder — the other 10 home games have drawn much smaller crowds, especially visible before the 7 p.m. start.
“We do look around probably after the first quarter,” said Willistine Brown, 67. “We do comment to ourselves, ‘Hmm, it’s kind of sparse here tonight.’ ”
Several years ago, one longtime fan in the same section as the Sullivans attempted to convince others to stop renewing. Tim Sullivan didn’t take part in the mutiny but now, he warned, he’s close. His wife wants to spend more time at their retirement home in Lancaster, Pa., and she has gone solo while he attends games. What could convince him to keep coming back?
“Right now, my condition would be to fire [team President] Ernie Grunfeld or else I’m not going to renew,” Sullivan said. “I’m so close to getting out and I’m under pressure because we got a retirement place up in Pennsylvania . . . there’s a lot of pressure pulling, and then you have Ernie pushing. I just want somebody to pull me back here.”
Sullivan’s voice rose as he ticked off Grunfeld’s offenses — “Jesus, Ernie! Sixteen million!” yelped Sullivan while bringing up Ian Mahinmi’s maligned annual salary. “I would’ve signed for six!” Gracia, who no longer gets worked up about the Wizards, has the same complaints but in a muted tone. Still, he said he believes the fire-and-brimstone crowd makes a good point and should be heard.
“Organizations should take it as a compliment, because if [fans] are not saying it, it means nobody cares,” Gracia said. “When [the Wizards] hear talk like, ‘We got to trade John Wall' or 'Fire Scott Brooks’ or the conversation is to get rid of Ernie Grunfeld, those conversations happen because they are fans and they want to see a winner and they care about the team.
“That’s the biggest thing,” Gracia continued, “why we keep coming back because we want to see a winner.”
After that double-digit loss to the Blazers, the Wizards hit a rough stretch in the news cycle but started winning home games. Last week, they offered a glimmer of hope by beating the Houston Rockets in an exciting overtime game.
As celebratory music played afterward, the Browns climbed the steps to the exit on the main concourse. Willistine stopped for a moment, letting Jay walk on without her, and smiled. For one night, the Wizards were worth their devotion.
“This,” she said, “is why we come back.”