September 7, 2017

Show Up

I spent last weekend in New York City. I love New York (as a non-resident) and love to spend a long weekend up there about once a year or so (this year it's been twice; last year I skipped entirely) to enjoy what The City has to offer before getting back to my more comfortable surroundings down here around the nation's capital.

As I was walking towards Madison Square Garden and Penn Station to take the train home, I noticed a banner above the entrance to the Garden advertising the upcoming WNBA's New York Liberty playoffs with the bold words "No Excuses" and "Show Up for the Playoffs". I'm assuming the banner was talking to the fans, not the players, imploring the Liberty faithful and others to get their butts to MSG to cheer on the hometown team in their second round best of one series. Is that right? Fans need to be cajoled to get themselves to a home playoff basketball game?

I then spent part of last night at Capital One Arena watching the Washington Mystics beat the Dallas Wings in the first round of the WNBA playoffs (also a best of one) and I have to say the place was pretty much empty. This after the Mystics posted the below tweet on Tuesday afternoon encouraging people in D.C. to do just what the Liberty were doing in New York: "We need you there!" So the questions here are: is there an attendance issue with the Mystics and are we doing everything we can to support this team that occupies an important part of the sports landscape in Washington? I'm going to argue that there is and we are not. I'll also argue I'm almost as much to blame as anyone else out there.

Maybe we should start with some numbers. Last year the WNBA reported that they averaged their highest average attendance since 2011. That sounds really positive for the league. And digging into the numbers, their claim appears to be true, that attendance WAS in fact higher last season than the previous four. But it also didn't really dip much in those four down years nor did it climb much last season. In fact, average attendance per game over the prior 12 seasons before 2017 has never been below 7,300 per game nor above 8,200 per game. That's a remarkably steady record and it almost sounds pretty good. But I have to tell you, there is no way there were more than 3,000 people at last night's game. And it was a playoff game. So maybe the Mystics just draw fewer fans than the rest of the league?

Turns out that's not necessarily true either. Yes, the Mystics were in the bottom half of the league in attendance last year and yes, their average attendance was reported at slightly less than 7,000 but those numbers are not that far off the league averages to yield that few people in seats last night. Yes, it was a Wednesday and it was raining (which has had a tendency to postpone or delay Mystics games this summer due to a leaky arena roof) and it was an 8 p.m. start. If the average attendance last year in a non-playoff year was almost 7,000 there should have been more people in the building. And I have to say based on attending three other games this year (well...two because one was postponed due to the roof leak) the attendance last night wasn't out of the norm. In fact, I'd say it was probably higher than the other games I've been to. So what gives?

Well part of the problem may be the Capital One Arena (formerly Verizon Center) itself. The place is huge for this kind of event. When set up for a Wizards game, the capacity is 20,308. During a Mystics game, they don't even open anything above the lower level bowl except the suites so even with a "full" arena, everything above the lower level is going to be completely vacant. You can overcome some of that issue by lighting the arena strategically; if the 100 level is full of fans, you won't even notice the place is more than half empty.

The Mystics appear to be proactive about solving this issue in a way other teams have already figured out: play the games in a smaller arena. 7,000 people in a 7,500 seat arena makes it look way more full than the same number in a 20,000 seat building do. The Dallas Wings (the Mystics' opponent last night) do not play in the same arena as the NBA's Mavericks in downtown Dallas. Instead they call the smaller 7,215 capacity College Park Arena on the campus of the University of Texas at Arlington home.
The view from Section 118 last night. Not too full.
I expect that by the time the 2019 season rolls around, the Mystics will have resolved the empty building feeling and moved over to the new Wizards practice facility (the building is scheduled to open in summer or fall of 2018). That building will hold far fewer fans than Capital One Arena and that's likely a good thing for the atmosphere of the games. However, it appears there may not be enough space in that building. Depending on the source and the timing of the reporting, the capacity of that building has been reported as 5,000 seats by the Washington Post in September 2015; a little over a year later, the Washington Business Journal had the figure down to 4,200.

So why would the team do that? If the Mystics draw a bit less than 7,000 in a non-playoff year (last year) why are they building an arena that is going to top out at 4,200 fans? Won't that leave some fans on the outside looking in?

So let's get back to the numbers again. I've already stated that my unscientific fan count last night yielded fewer than 3,000 fans. That exercise can be incredibly difficult to undertake: it's impossible to count all the people individually and a lot of empty space in a building tends to give the impression that there's nobody there so if you guess at the numbers, the natural tendency is to guess low.

So let's look at things another way. If the article I used to get last season's attendance numbers is to be believed, then the lower level of Capital One Arena holds about 7,400 people. Last night's reported attendance was 6,483, meaning the lower level was 88% full. There is no way that is true. Look at the pictures of the crowd in this post. I can draw no other conclusion than the attendance figures are inflated. I no longer believe the published attendance figures from the league. They just are not credible.
Crowd picture #2 after we got upgraded, presumably to show more fans in the picture on ESPN2.
So what? Where does that leave us? Well, I have to say unfortunately it leaves us with a professional team in Washington that's making the playoffs and is not being supported. This makes little sense to me. I get that the game is different from the NBA but it's the only major women's league in town and this team is good this year. Folks should be heading downtown just even once or twice a year to see this team in action. It's also incredibly affordable and, depending on the situation, even free sometimes. We should be going to these games. I say there's an attendance issue with this team and we are not doing all we can to solve it.

So what's the problem? Well, I admit I'm part of it. Each team in the WNBA played 17 regular season home games this year. I attended two (three if you count the postponed roof leak game). That after attending just two in 2016 and zero in all the years before that. I'm committed from this point forward to support this team more than I have in the past. I believe all Wizards fans should do the same thing.

In the five (or six depending on your point of view) games I've actually attended in the last two years, I paid for just one of them. The other four/five I was either provided tickets for free for being a Monumental Network subscriber ("free" with the purchase of Wizards season tickets) or have used Monumental Rewards points accumulated by spending money on the Wizards. I've turned down at least two or three other free sets of tickets this year because of schedule conflicts. These free tickets by the way may be contributing to what I see as inflated attendance figures and if you are a conspiracy theorist, the team building an arena that holds fewer people than their reported attendance may prove that the team is inflating attendance figures.

Last night's game was exciting. Some cold shooting early on in the game hampered the flow a little but by the middle of the second quarter, the Mystics had built a pretty good double digit lead. Which they then proceeded to squander by halftime. In the second half the team was solid and they built an early lead which they never relinquished behind some timely shooting from Elena Delle Donne, Kristi Tolliver and Tianna Hawkins with some solid overall play from Emma Meessemen. It also had some typical playoff elimination game hallmarks: some scuffles, lots of free throws at the end of the game in a desperate comeback attempt and an ejection.
Unfortunately, that maybe all we see this year at home unless the Mystics can go up to New York and defeat the team that is begging their fans to show up on the banner outside their arena. If they do, they will be in the WNBA semi-finals with a game three (and possibly game 4) on the home wood at Capital One. And if they do that, we all ought to show up.
Mystics win!!! On to New York.

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