October 10, 2015

What's New At Verizon Center?

October is a glorious month. It's the first full month of fall, the days are getting cooler and of course it means the start of the NBA season and that's probably the most important reason I love October so much. This week the Wizards play all of their three home preseason games before heading out on the road for the last four before the regular season begins down in Orlando on October 28.

I love the first preseason game each year. It's such a relief to get back to Verizon Center after a summer off and see some basketball once again. It's also interesting to see what kind of changes have happened to the streetscape in Penn Quarter. Maybe there are some new restaurants or stores or maybe construction has started on some block or other or a building's been torn down. I was a little surprised this year. This is the first time in years I can't remember something substantive changing on my walk from Metro Center to the arena.

But if there's nothing outside changed, there's plenty of new stuff inside. And I'm not talking about Bradley Beal's headband or the Wizards new three point heavy offense with everyone including Kris Humphries bombing from beyond the arc or Marcin Gortat's new number. Nope, I'm talking about all sorts of stuff that makes the fan experience at VC come together. There's no doubt some deliberate changes happened these past few months. Here's what I noticed in the first two preseason games.

Etihad Is Coming
Actually, Etihad is here. And it's pretty darned obvious. Towards the beginning of this year, Verizon Center brought on Etihad Airways as a pretty significant sponsor. Etihad is probably most famous in the major sporting world for sponsoring the Barclay's Premier League's Manchester City uniforms and to a lesser extent their stadium. This sort of sponsorship is likely the ideal vehicle to raise the profile of a middle eastern airline dying to get people from the west to come to the UAE and spend some dough.

But until they popped up at VC last season, their presence in the United States was relatively invisible. And this season they have popped up in a big way. You can't escape the permanent signs in the end zones of the building. Becoming a sponsor at the Wizards and Caps arena is probably the first step towards something bigger. My money is still on seeing Wizards games in the Etihad Center in a couple of years, assuming Verizon decides not to re-up their naming rights. Etihad can probably out bid them significantly if they really wanted to anyway.

The Bone
OK, so The Bone wasn't open for the first preseason game but I'm hoping it will for all 41 regular season home games. I've long been disappointed with Verizon Center's food offerings in my first 15 years of being a season ticket holder so getting a barbeque place set up by a local microbrewery (Heritage Brewing Company out of Manassas) seems promising. I've had Heritage's Freedom Ain't Free beer before which I think is pretty good so that might be a good omen.

Now, I've written in this blog before about how I've been disappointed in general with barbeque food so there's some hesitancy to my optimism. I also acknowledge that Verizon Center has made some strides in adding legitimate restaurants like Hard Times and Greene Turtle (go ahead and debate the "legitimate" part if you must and both are now gone from VC) and to me it hasn't worked. I honestly tried multiple times to like the Greene Turtle food and I just couldn't. Nonetheless I do have some hope and I'll give it a shot. Let's get this thing open.

I discovered Poutine for real when I visited Toronto last fall to watch the Wizards fall hard and quick to the home Toronto Raptors. It's the most simple and delicious of meals which is not particularly good for you at all. It's a heap of French fries with gravy and cheese curds. Sometimes there are other toppings or add ons on there but in its most basic form it's fries, gravy and curds. Yummy!!!

So imagine my excitement when I saw a sign advertising two different types of poutine at Verizon Center on my first visit there this past week. I had to try this. There are two types of poutine available at Verizon Center. I opted for the bacon ranch.

For sure there are fries and cheese curds in this dish and as advertised, there is bacon and ranch dressing. But I wondered how the gravy component would work in what was likely a cardboard container before ordering and my initial suspicion was that it wouldn't. I was sort of right. It was only at the end of me shoving fries into my mouth that I even found any gravy at all. When I did, it was OK for stadium food. But poutine it ain't. I'm still hopeful for The Bone. Not sure I'm trying the pulled port version of this dish.

Wizards History Display
The notion of incorporating displays of memorabilia or other items celebrating the history of Verizon Center's residents was clearly not an idea that was integrated into the initial design of the building. Over the past decade or so, displays have been shoehorned into whatever space could be made available to connect the building's concourse to the action happening on the court or ice. It started with the Bullets' 1977-1978 championship trophy on the F Street side of the arena and last season, the Caps added a hat trick display on the opposite side of the building.

I've been in other newer arenas on much larger sites in the past couple of years where these displays are much better. Orlando's arena has a large history of the Magic gallery and Philadelphia's arena on the south end of the city has a much more impressive hat trick exhibit. Verizon Center just doesn't have the space available so I guess we take what we can get. I'm glad Monumental Sports is doing this sort of thing.

Over the summer, a Wizards history display was added on the mall side of the building near last year's Caps display. It's a simple case showing off the team's multiple jerseys since 1961 when the team was founded as the Chicago Packers. There is some narrative describing the team's history as it moved from city to city to city and changed it's nickname four times in addition to a technically correct but perhaps a bit misleading (on the contribution to team history side) list of Hall of Famers who have played for the franchise.

I find two things especially interesting about this display. First, it's the only I've ever seen a Chicago Packers jersey. I had no idea they wore red, white and blue. Secondly, the franchise, especially under former owner Abe Pollin's tenure, seemed reluctant to acknowledge the first two years the team spent in Chicago as the Packers and Zephyrs. Many items of memorabilia for sale over the past dozen or so years at VC have had a 1963 founding date, which is the year Pollin's group first bought the club and moved it to Baltimore.

I like pretty much everything about this addition. It's a nice touch, I think, especially for newer fans. Oh and the jerseys…Walt Bellamy (8), Earl Monroe (10), Wes Unseld (41), Bernard King (30), John Wall (2), Antawn Jamsion (4). Elvin Hayes (11), Gus Johnson (25) and Terry Dischinger (43). I had to look up Dischinger. I don't get that one.

Beer Prices
I know what you are thinking...beer prices went UP? AGAIN? Yep, it's true. The biggest swindle in all sports arenas is still beer. And because so many people (myself included) can't help themselves from drinking beer at sporting events, the price keeps going up. Like every year. Or at least it seems like it's that way.

I think I can remember way back to 2000 when I first became a Wizards season ticket holder. At that time or shortly thereafter, a draft beer was $7 for a 24 oz. cup. Over the years, the cost of tap beer inched up a bit until the price stabilized when the arena reduced the cup size (sneaky...) and then it kept going up again.  Get used to it beer drinkers. It's going to continue to rise. This year's 25 oz. can of Budweiser (my preferred beer selection due to a combination of "savings" with the bulk buy in a way-easier-than-draft container) jumped from $11 last year to $11.50 this year.

Skycam in action. Just above the referee on walking up the court near the Verizon Center graphic.
This year, Comcast SportsNet and the Wizards have decided to install a mobile camera system which will bring angles of the game for the home viewer previously un-seen. Sounds great, right? I'd love to get as many different views of plays as I can when I'm at home sitting in my lounge chair watching the Wizards. So why isn't this great? Well, let me explain.

The camera runs along a series of cables hung from the structure of the arena on the north side of the main scoreboard. That makes sense. They can't hang it from the center of the building because of the scoreboard and the views taken from the north side would show the court as the correct way up (i.e. the court graphics would not be upside down on TV). The problem? When you are sitting in the 400 level on the north side of the building, especially in row C of 415, the camera flies over the court and obscures my view of what's going on every so often. Maybe it will become less obvious as I watch more and more from upstairs at VC, but for now, it's made my seats obstructed view at times. That's not good. I'm not a fan.

I think Verizon Center hit on some of these alterations and missed on others. Call me a complainer or resistant to change or whatever, but there are some things here that don't add to my experience at VC. Keep changing. It's the only way things will get better. One more preseason tilt tomorrow then I'm looking forward to getting back to the building October 31 for the home season opener.

List of Hall of Famers that played for the franchise in the Franchise History display. There maybe too many here.

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