July 6, 2016

Do The Wizards Have A Fan Problem?

Before free agency talks began this offseason, the Washington Wizards had already lost out on their number one option. A couple of years ago at least half the Wizards fans out there had half talked themselves into the fantasy of homegrown basketball superstar Kevin Durant returning to the District to save our historically mediocre Wizards from continued mediocrity. Instead of considering his hometown team's pitch, Durant simply refused to even meet with the Wizards. Ouch!

When we got to day one of free agency, things didn't go a whole lot better. Sure, the team locked up Bradley Beal for the next five years (the cynic here would point out Beal really had two options: sign with the Wiz long term for a truckload of cash or take a risk on a one year qualifying offer and his health), but they missed on an in person meeting with one half of what appears to have been their plan B: the Charlotte Hornets' Nicolas Batum. He took a call from the Wizards but re-signed quickly with Charlotte. Then on day two day they whiffed on the second half of their plan B, the Atlanta Hawks' Al Horford. Three swings, three misses. Although let's face it, the franchise probably took the first strike looking.

As Wizards fans, I think we owe it to ourselves to ask the question "Why?" Why did three marquee players (maybe a stretch on Batum but still...) pass on the Wizards' money to go play elsewhere? I get that the Wizards missed the playoffs in 2016 after two straight second round appearances. But the team has a legitimate NBA starting lineup in place in three time All-Star John Wall; Beal; center Marcin Gortat; power forward Markieff Morris; and fourth year man Otto Porter, who admittedly might have been forced to come off the bench if either one of Durant, Batum or Horford had signed up for a season or more in D.C. Heck, when the team was engrossed in discussions with Horford they had already signed the Indiana Pacers' starting center Ian Mahinmi to come off the bench. Horford, in fact, according to one account actually preferred the Wizards personnel to the Celtics', the team with whom he ultimately signed. The lineup can't have been a problem.

So what's the deal? We have a brand new coach in place with NBA Finals pedigree so surely that's not the issue. We can guess at other factors like ownership (that has not, as yet, ventured enough over the salary cap to get itself into luxury tax territory) or management (which might have been around too long with no demonstrable track record of consistent success) that might have been involved in players' decisions not to sign with the Wizards. But nobody that turned the team down said anything to hint at that being the cause.

So maybe it's the fans who show up for games at Verizon Center. Seems crazy, right? Who on Earth would think that? Well, Kevin Durant, for one.

That's right, before his annual trip to D.C. on official business during this past season, Durant labeled the fans in Verizon Center "disrespectful" for cheering for him in an opponent's jersey, offering the opinion that the fans should be cheering for the players on the court for the Wizards. He then went on to declare "I wouldn't like it if I was on that team." 

So this is a one off thing, right? I mean players don't really think about this stuff, do they? Well, yes they do. In fact Al Horford in the last week cited the passion and enthusiasm of Celtics fans as a reason for choosing Boston as his new team rather than the Wizards or the Atlanta Hawks, a place where he'd spent his entire career but which admittedly suffers from some of the same things that Durant cited in his criticism of the VC crowd.

So all that brings me to the question: do the Wizards have a fan problem? I've read a number of things in the past week defending the fans in Verizon Center offering up the miserable record of Washington's basketball teams over the past three and a half plus decades as a credible defense. Most of these articles I've read place the blame squarely at the feet of the organization owned by Abe Pollin and now Ted Leonsis and of course there are some swipes at General Manager Ernie Grunfeld in there. My answer to the question I've asked earlier in this paragraph is "YES!" Because for sure, the Wizards have a fan problem. And it's enormous.

Let's get to the blame thing in a few minutes. The first step to solving any problem is admitting there is one in the first place. I believe there's a fan problem at Wizards home games. Anybody in the building listening to John Wall get booed at the free throw line at home against the Lakers; or hearing chants of "Go! Spurs! Go!" or "Let's go Celtics!" (or Knicks); or listening to Cleveland Cavaliers fans (read: former Miami Heat fans) making more noise than the hometown faithful during a Wizards-Cavs game has to acknowledge there's a fan problem at Verizon Center. The question is does the organization want to try to address this?

Now we can indulge in a couple of "what are Wizards fans supposed to do when the history of the organization is so bad" paragraphs. Yes, the Bullets and Wizards track record over the past 37 years is deplorable: no NBA titles, no conference titles, no division titles, no conference finals appearances and a maximum of 46 wins in a season. In that span of time, every current NBA city has experienced at least one 52 win season (Charlotte did it with the original Hornets) except Washington which is a full six wins shy in their ONE 46 win season.

For those of you longing for the good old days of the Bullets, let me disabuse of that notion. The last 18 Bullets seasons featured just one second round playoff appearance and a maximum of 43 wins in a season. The Wizards in their 19 seasons have made three second round playoff appearances and have won 43 games in a season for times. Bullets or Wizards aside, all this adds up to generations (and I don't use that term lightly but I really mean it) of disaffected Washington basketball fans. I agree with all those who blame the organization for this problem. I don't necessarily hold the fans blameless because I (and many tens of others) manage to show up almost every game and root for the Wizard and NEVER NEVER for any opposition player, no matter how much of a superstar he is.

But enough blaming. Back to the solution and does the organization want to take steps to do anything about this. And let's take the obvious solution off the table which is build a championship squad that everyone in the DMV will love, cheer on with reckless abandon and pay gobs and gobs of money to watch play in person. Don't get me wrong, it's a great solution but right now it's a bit pie in the sky and we need a solution like right now. I don't want to be drowned out by Clippers fans (we would scoff at this notion ten years ago, right?) at too many more home Wizards games. The issue for me is how do we get more noise in the building, ideally by getting Wizards fans to show up and kicking opposing fans (or "fans" if you prefer) out of the building.

These issues are not unique to the Wizards. Some NBA teams (will the Boston Celtics and the Miami Heat please stand up!) have solved the noise issue by piping in fake cheering over the building's sound system. Yep, that's right there are some games in Beantown or south Florida where you can hear tons of noise on TV while the crowd is obviously sitting there making no noise. Please don't do this, Wizards. It may be effective but it lacks a certain authenticity. 

Increasing noise artificially is one thing; stopping opponents fans making noise is another. There's really no way to get at this but to take those fans out of the building. Some teams have taken a somewhat authoritarian tact towards other teams' fans. The NHL's Tampa Bay Lightning has prohibited the wearing of opponents' jerseys during Lighting home games either in certain sections or the whole arena during the playoffs. While effective at keeping visitor swag out of the building, it doesn't solve the problem of opponents' fans in the building and it seems a little gestapo-like. Not a fan of the Wizards doing this either.

The biggest problem for me is the availability of secondary market tickets which allow opposing team fans to cherry pick quality seats (and let's be honest here a lot of the sellers are season ticket holders) and show up in force to root against the Wizards. Some teams have taken measures to combat secondary market sales by season ticket holders. Some NBA and NFL teams have either restricted season ticket sales or secondary market sales through official outlets to addresses within the immediate vicinity of the home city. The New York Yankees have restricted resale minimums to a certain percentage of the season ticket holder cost in some sections. This could work to get Wizards fans into the building. Imagine how many season ticket holders when forced to sell their Wednesday Utah Jazz tickets at half face value might opt to go to the game instead of eating the cost (because let's face it, Wednesday against the Jazz ain't selling for anything but the bare minimum).

So not being a guy to throw around criticism without offering up a solution, here's my idea: incentivize Wizards season ticket holders to show up by offering deep discounts over gate prices and prohibiting secondary market sales. I know what you are thinking. I'm crazy, right? Bear with me. And I'm not thinking of a system where season ticket holders earn rewards points but can't ever redeem them for anything useful; that system already exists.

Right now Wizards season ticket holders get a minimal discount over the gate price but have the freedom to sell tickets on either official or unofficial ticket resale sites. Some fans, I'm sure, go to some games they want to but when there's money to be made they are happy to sell their tickets in great location to fans of the visiting teams if it lines their pockets a bit. These extra bucks might allow them to skip some mid-week games against un-popular teams and watch from the comfort of their sofa at home. The result? Opposing fans of good teams at Verizon Center and an empty building mid-week when the Milwaukee Bucks are in town.

So why not change it up a bit? Why not offer season ticket holders the option of buying further discounted ticket plans with a prohibition on selling on the secondary market? Can't be done because there are too many ways to sell tickets these days, you say? Well what if the customers opting for this plan could only use an electronic card (the Wizards already issue these for season ticket holders) with no option to print at home or transfer tickets to friends or post for sale on a resale site? Sure season ticket holders could sell the card issued to them but what are the odds it gets returned after that buyer has used it?

I know this might seem extreme or marginally useful but at least it will force Wizards season ticket holders to show up for Cleveland or Golden State or San Antonio or Oklahoma City games. Either that or they just stay at home and their seats are vacant. Better an empty seat than a Cavaliers or Warriors or Spurs or Thunder fan in it. The discounts would have to be deep here and I know the concept sounds particularly un-American but we need some extreme solutions to our fan problem.

I know there are downsides to the organization with this idea. They would be further discounting season tickets for some fans and we know from the last couple of year how the current ownership likes to raise ticket prices. But look, this is a bit of a crisis and desperate times call for desperate measures. At this time in the franchise's history, the Wizards NEED more fans that show up every night. Each of the three photographs in this post were taken by me right before tipoff of a Wizards home game in the last two years. We have a serious fan problem. No matter who we blame for it, it exists. We may need an extreme solution.

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