One short walk through a hallway, and the star forward was in the center of the Mystics’ new game court, surrounded by 4,200 dark-blue seats.
“It’s like a one-stop shop,” Delle Donne said Thursday.
On Saturday, Delle Donne and the Mystics finally get to show off their new digs to their fans.
Entertainment and Sports Arena opened last fall and hosted the Wizards’ G League affiliate, the Capital City Go-Go, in its inaugural season. But its first WNBA game is Saturday, when the Mystics (0-1) take on the Atlanta Dream (1-0) at 7 p.m. in a rematch of last year’s league semifinals.
In many ways, the arena marks a new era for the Mystics — one in which players can plainly see their owners’ dedication to the team’s success. An arena dedicated solely to the Mystics means they won’t be moving around come playoff time as they had to last year, when they played at both George Washington and George Mason universities’ arenas while their previous home base, Capital One Arena, underwent renovation. In previous years, the Mystics have had to spend long chunks of time on the road during the season while Capital One Arena hosted concerts and conventions.
The new practice facility, which the team shares with the Wizards, is significant as well.
“It gets players who are in here working out a little hyped about stuff, like, yeah, we matter,” said Mike Thibault, the Mystics’ coach and general manager. “I think that’s part of it. … They feel that they’re important to the organization, they’re important to the city, and, you know, people want them to be successful. I think as a player you get that sense every day here when you walk in that, ‘Okay, we have something special going.’ ”
But the biggest difference Washington will feel on game day is the massive downsize of its home arena.
Capital One Arena is a cavernous, 18,000-seat venue that the Mystics could never hope to fill — the team averaged 6,136 tickets sold per game last season, and tickets sold did not reflect the number of people actually at the game. Games were often so quiet that every play-call or direction shouted by guard Kristi Toliver was audible from the stands.
The team hopes that the 4,200-seat arena will create a loud, raucous atmosphere and provide the Mystics a true home-court advantage the likes of which the Connecticut Sun enjoys at its dedicated, 10,000-seat arena at Mohegan Sun casino resort. When Washington played at the Uncasville arena last weekend, only the lower bowl was full, and even then the arena was much louder and more energetic than the average Mystics game at Capital One.
The downside is that Washington loses the potential to sell more tickets — in 2017, the team averaged 7,771. But Thibault and Ted Leonsis, the majority owner of the Monumental Sports & Entertainment ownership group, both said they would rather have a packed house. According to the team, Saturday’s game is close to a sellout. The Mystics also said they sold 457 new full-season ticket packages after their run to the WNBA Finals last year — the most new purchases in an offseason since Monumental took over the team in 2010.
“I think the packed house every night is the most important thing,” Thibault said. “It creates the atmosphere you want.”
To create that atmosphere and fill the arena, the Mystics are counting on their fan base to migrate.
The new arena, which is about a five-minute walk from the Congress Heights Metro stop on the Green Line, is in one of the city’s more violent neighborhoods.
Capital One Arena also was an attractive venue for Mystics fans — who include young families and die-hard, longtime supporters coming in from the suburbs as much as the casual, after-work crowd hoping to catch a game — in part because it is surrounded by restaurant and other entertainment options.
Ward 8, on the other hand, is historically underserved by the city, and there are no dining options around the arena. Entertainment and Sports Arena is one part of a $65 million remaking of the east campus of the former St. Elizabeths Hospital, the plan for which includes building retail, residential and office space. But for now, WNBA fans looking for a bite to eat will be left to concessions.
“What we’ve seen with Capital One Arena over the past 20 years is that it has served as an engine of economic development and growth in Chinatown, and I believe the same will be true for this great facility here in Ward 8,” Leonsis said in an email. “We are thrilled to be bringing our team here, and I challenge other businesses in D.C. to come with us. … Developing this area will not only be great for our fan base but will also benefit the current residents by creating jobs, generating tax revenue and growing the community of Ward 8, which has always been a priority for us.”
Mystics players are aware that they’re moving into a more residential neighborhood and look forward to hosting community events in the area, beginning with a block party starting at 2 p.m. Saturday that will feature food vendors, music, youth basketball clinics and a visit from team greats Monique Currie and Chamique Holdsclaw.
“It’s hard when you’re moving in. You can sometimes feel like a burden, but we don’t want to be that,” Mystics guard Natasha Cloud said. “We want to be a part of this community, help grow it and help prosper.”
Note: Both Delle Donne (left knee injury) and Toliver (right quadriceps contusion) are expected to play in Saturday’s home opener.