Had the Washington Wizards started the season on time last Wednesday, Donte Hance would have arrived at Verizon Center about three hours before tip-off, stocked the ice cream, pretzels and cotton candy, and cleaned and set up equipment in preparation for a busy evening. But since the game against the New Jersey Nets was canceled, Hance was at his home in Baltimore, mostly “sitting around, doing nothing,” but also contemplating whether he should find a part-time job or seek unemployment benefits to make up for monetary losses that he will incur as a result of the NBA lockout.
Hance, a 28-year-old concession-stand manager at the arena, also works Capitals games and other events, but the NBA’s cancellation of the preseason and the first month of the regular season has taken away at least eights nights of work — with more games sure to be eliminated if no deal is reached soon.
As players and owners continue their four-month tussle over how to divide billions of dollars in revenue, Hance is worried about how he’ll provide for his three children. “I don’t even understand why they are going through what they’re going through, seeing as though they make so much money,” Hance said of the NBA and its players’ union. “It matters to me because it affects my livelihood, whereas I’m trying to pay my bills on [little money] every two weeks, instead of having a regular paycheck.”
NBA Commissioner David Stern has estimated that players and owners have lost hundreds of millions of dollars because of the lockout, but as one arena employee suggested, there is a “trickle down” being felt by those depending on those games for income.
The Wizards employ between 120 and 170 part-time workers — ushers, security guards, custodians, etc. — for each game at Verizon Center. Another 200 people, such as Hance, are involved in concessions, which are generally contracted through the food services company Aramark and have no affiliation with the team or the building. Levy Restaurants also provides workers.
“It’s depressing sometimes,” said Irving Jenkins, a 31-year-old supervisor with Crown Foods, which is subcontracted through Aramark and rents spots at Verizon Center. “Most of the employees have families and kids. It’s tough on them. Without those Wizards games, it just messes everything up.”
About 400 NBA jobs have been lost since the league instituted the lockout on July 1, according to a report in Sports Business Journal. NBA officials announced that 114 employees were laid off from various offices but said the moves weren’t necessarily related to the lockout. The Charlotte Bobcats, Detroit Pistons, Los Angeles Lakers and Minnesota Timberwolves have reportedly cut staffs in the past four months.
The nearly 100 full-time, non-basketball operations employees with the Wizards have so far been immune from any layoffs or salary reductions since the lockout, according to a league source, which is consistent with how owner Ted Leonsis handled the NHL lockout in 2004-05, when the entire season was lost.
Part-time Verizon Center employees, however, feel the pinch of lost games. Some have admitted that the loss in salary could be the difference in getting by or struggling to hold on.
“It really does affect those people,” said Neal Harol, an independent contractor from College Park who sells beer at Verizon Center. “Between the Caps and Wizards, throw in another 35 or 40 events and concerts. That’s half their workload if you throw away the Wizards. The NBA is affecting the little person, much more than the player.”
(Workers at Verizon Center are in a better situation than those in NBA cities that don’t also have an NHL tenant in their arena, such as Miami, Cleveland, Indiana, Oakland, Orlando, Charlotte, Minneapolis, San Antonio, Portland, Sacramento, Oklahoma City and Atlanta. )
Harol has been working at Verizon Center for the past year, but he has been selling beer at sporting events for nearly 38 years and said he has worked at 22 Super Bowls and 19 Kentucky Derbies. He said NBA fans are usually the worst at purchasing beverages at games, estimating that he makes four times more from his sales during Capitals games, and nearly 10 times more at concerts.
But he is concerned about more canceled games. “It’s not going to affect my pocket, one way or another, but I would like [the NBA] to come back so that I don’t get too out of shape. I can’t afford to get out of shape,” he said. “I’m 58 years old. I need to stay fit. At my age, it does me no good to stop for eight days straight, trying to walk steps. I like to stay busy or I get all out of whack physically.”
Jenkins supervises a staff of about 10 to 12 workers for games at Verizon Center. His crew also works other sporting venues in the region, including Baltimore. With the Wizards game on Saturday against Orlando canceled, he was able to find an alternative for them in a high school football event at M&T Bank Stadium. They will also work the Redskins game at FedEx Field on Sunday.
“If we only have one or two Capitals games, we’re only working once or twice a week,” said Jenkins, who lives in Baltimore. “It’s tough, dealing with hours upon hours upon hours lost. I’m up to 60-something hours lost because of the lockout. It’s terrible.”
Uncertainty over the labor dispute has been the primary topic of discussion among concession workers, Hance said. “When you’re on the elevator, it’s the topic. Everywhere. Everybody is discussing, ‘What’s going on with the deal?’ Because we need it,” he said. “Last season was beautiful. You had your regular paychecks. You basically knew what to expect. You could manage your bills. You knew you had a good schedule throughout the year. Now, you’re talking about being out until December? Goodness gracious.”
Hance would also like for the NBA to return because, as a native of Kissimmee, Fla., and “a [Miami] Heat fan, all day,” he would like to see LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh win a championship this season. “I hope the players get what they need, if not what they want. I hope they say, ‘I’m comfortable with this,’ and we get this season started, so we can get our entertainment and I can get some money so I can take care of my kids,” Hance said. “I definitely miss them games. It’s putting a hurting on the lifestyle.”