Quick Ain’t Fair, John Wall and Washington Pro Ball Aren’t There
On top of the lacking national brand recognition, fans in Washington just don’t seem that dedicated, either. The Verizon Center, in what is said to be the seventh-largest U.S. television market, finished 22nd in total attendance amongst NBA franchises this past season, only slightly ahead of the Minnesota Timberwolves and Cleveland Cavaliers but also better than three playoff teams: the Indiana Pacers, Atlanta Hawks and Milwaukee Bucks. Downtrodden franchises like the Orlando Magic (18th), Toronto Raptors (16th), and Portland Trail Blazers (10th) out-paced the Wizards in total attendance.
When Michael Jordan donned Wizards blue from 2001 to 2003 (sometimes inaccurately, or perhaps facetiously, called Wizards “teal”), Washington finished second and third in total attendance over each of his two seasons1. In the decade since, the franchise hasn’t finished better than 12th in the NBA in total attendance. And since last making the playoffs in 2007-08, Washington hasn’t finished better than 17th (in John Wall’s rookie season, 2010-11). Over the last five seasons, the Wizards have averaged a ranking of 20th in total attendance, which isn’t terribly bad considering that during the same time span they have fielded the NBA’s third-worst winning percentage.
[1Over 1.6 million walked through the turnstiles in Chinatown over the two seasons Jordan was making money for Abe Pollin as a player. In the past three seasons (one of them being a lockout-shortened 66 games), the arena has received 1.9 million total entries. —Attendance numbers via Basketball-Reference.com]
Star players always sell tickets. But even with a relatively quick transition from the Michael Jordan era to a handful of relevant seasons via Gilbert Arenas’ basketball and blogging to landing the No. 1 overall draft pick in John Wall, pro basketball fans in the District have not been resilient about attending games. In addition to a softly-dedicated base, a losing product that suddenly crashed into reality has soured many over the past five seasons.
Yes, Washington, D.C. being an ultra-transient city will always be part of the reason for lacking fan support. In smaller markets, such as Portland (the 24th-ranked U.S. market), the Trail Blazers have the advantage of being the main professional sports attraction in town. The Blazers last won an NBA championship in 1977, the year before the Bullets did in 1978, but they have a thousand times more tradition and community roots than the Washington franchise2, as well as a fan base rabid enough to make Portland’s Rose Garden one of the NBA’s toughest venues for teams on the road. The track record of Pollin’s “mom and pop” operation set a different precedent over the years.
[2Sure, much of this has to do with playoff appearances. Portland had made the playoffs six years in a row when Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen purchased the team in 1988 and then proceeded to make the playoffs for the next 15 seasons straight (21 total). But in the last 10 seasons, the Blazers have just three playoff appearances, all first round losses. The Wizards have four postseason entries in the last 10 seasons, only once advancing to the second round. It goes without saying that from Brandon Roy to Greg Oden, Blazers fans, just as Wizards fans, are familiar with how injuries can devastatingly throw the ship off course.]
People like to tout the DMV area’s slept-on basketball roots, but its denizens are simply not entertained by the top level of basketball. Or perhaps they’re just not willing to invest their time and money with the local pro franchise. Television and the Internet (especially NBA League Pass) have made it easier for fans to turn their attention to more entertaining and successful endeavors when their home team is struggling. Hail to those who “buy local” when it comes to pro sports.
The below passage is especially relevant. It is from a book recently published on the history of professional basketball in the nation’s capital, called “The Bullets, the Wizards, and Washington, D.C. Basketball” by Brett L. Abrams and Raphael Mazzone. The book’s prelude to the following paragraph discusses how the population of the Washington metropolitan area (DMV—D.C., Maryland, Virginia) increased by 2.4 million to around 5.5 million between the 1970 and 2010 census3.
With this increase in more than 2 million people to the area, it would seem that the Bullets/Wizards fan base would have grown significantly. What happened to the fans? The area of fan psychology has started to document what fans are and where motivates them. Being a fan of a team provides a sense of belonging, a sense of community. A fan’s linkage to a team serves as an extension of the self and a specific identity. [Ed. Note: Tell me about it. -KW] This identification also extends to certain players, most especially the team’s star or superstar players. As the NBA focused on the marketing of stars since the 1980s, this type of identification has only increased, for example, with the “Be like Mike” phenomenon. Fans gain an outlet for escape from the daily world and also experience a range of emotions, particularly euphoria, dejection, and stress. Those fans who are loosely connected to a team interact with their teams through basking in reflected glory (BIRGing) and cutting off reflective failures (CORFing). As the terms suggest, the fan enjoys credit during the periods when the team succeeds and denies any connection when the team fails. [Ed. Note: Or, there's #SoWizards Twitter and blogging. -KW]
[3Estimates say that the DMV population has increased by almost 250,000 since 2010, and that Washington has now passed eighth-place Miami in market size and is encroaching on sixth-place Philadelphia. Of the top 20 metropolitan areas in the United States, only the Houston and Dallas areas are increasing in population at a faster rate than the Washington area. —Stats via U.S. Census Bureau, via Wikipedia]
Back on Saturday, May 11, an adidas “#QuickAintFair” event was to be held at the D.C. waterfront, in the outdoor stadium that the Washington Kastles pro tennis team calls home. A basketball court was set-up for the kids, John Wall was supposed to attend, and rapper A$AP Rocky was supposed to perform. The goal was to promote Wall’s arrival on the national scene, not only as a potential force in the league, but as a spokesperson for adidas. The company’s new CrazyQuick line of shoes and the surrounding promotional campaign, including a national television commercial featuring Wall alongside of Portland’s Damian Lillard, Philadelphia’s Jrue Holiday, and A$AP Rocky, tied the whole package together. But the event never really happened. #RainAintFair, apparently.
The adidas court was scheduled to be open to attendees from 1 to 5 pm on a Saturday that started rainy and overcast in the District, but not necessarily rainy after the 2-3 pm hour. A Washington Nationals-Chicago Cubs game was set to start at 4:05 pm just over a 20-minute walk eastward. Wall was supposed to show up at 3:30, his official role in the festivities to begin at 4:15, and Mr. A$AP to close out the day by doing his thing at 5 pm. I got to the area at around 3 in the afternoon.
The basketball court set-up where the tennis team plays had been covered by a tarp during the weather, but was nonetheless very wet when the sun started to shine. It required a team of professionals armed with a combination of mops and water-vacs to make it right. The day, and the court, eventually dried up to the point where kids, wearing/testing the adidas CrazyQuick shoes, were able to run an NBA All-Star Weekend-esque Skills Challenge on the very same court where the adidas “Quick Ain’t Fair” commercial featuring Wall, Lillard and Holiday was filmed. Merely transporting the court to Washington must have been yeoman’s work.
But still no official event. Wizards fans, those with interest in John Wall, adidas aficionados, and “Rocky” listeners don’t adhere to the rain or shine principles of USPS carriers. Even when the weather in Washington cleared up after the 3 o’clock hour, a base wasn’t built. The number of kids and attendees at any one point—counted by the dozens—never exceeded the staff and media around to work the festivities.
Trail Blazers fans, in comparison, lined up around the block in the rain for hours to meet Lillard at an adidas event held at a Portland gallery at the end of May (this one sans basketball court). Lillard fans who showed up were also given the chance to purchase a limited edition pair of adidas made to honor Lillard winning the NBA’s Rookie of the Year award. Adidas even recently replaced a large banner of Derrick Rose with Lillard at their U.S. headquarters in Portland, Oregon. Remember when Gilbert Arenas was with adidas?
John Wall at one point, I was told by a PR representative, called to check on the status of the D.C. event and its attendance. He ultimately elected to forgo showing up4. A$AP was on-site, I was also told, but a performance for dozens did not fit the criteria. The event was promoted through Foot Locker, was published as a promo post in general web outlets (Slam, Dime, Complex), and had a FaceBook RSVP list of over 1,000, but never had traction with the storm clouds rolling.
[4On Saturday night, June 1, Wall attended an event at Gallaudet University in D.C. for Red Bull, another company to which he is signed as a spokesperson. The event was just one of several being held across U.S. cities in search of the best basketballers. One result from Wall's appearance: this relatively meaningless Washington Post article in which the focus was on the upcoming NBA draft. Wall was asked, again, what he thought the Wizards needed. And again, just like when asked the same thing about six weeks prior, Wall said, "a four man that can pick and pop," which is more a general statement of need and not necessarily a draft pursuit.]
Perhaps Wall’s May 11 no-show was a good thing, as the “Quick Ain’t Fair” court still seemed slick from the humidity when kids were running the course. The thought of Wall attempting to do the skills challenge with any amount of seriousness brought a sense of uneasiness to my stomach. I certainly didn’t want to be on-hand for more John Wall injury news.
It was no Gilbert Arenas showing up at Barry Farms on a random night to play. It was not the crowd one might imagine had adidas announced that Robert Griffin III, also signed to the sports apparel company, would be in attendance. It was an unceremonious cancellation and a general waste of time—not for me covering the event, as I would have been out-and-about in the District that afternoon anyway, but for those there to work.
The book by Abrams and Mazzone goes on to discuss other influencers of long-fleeting fandom for the Bullets/Wizards franchise. Younger generations tending to root for individuals instead of teams and the fantasy sports industry have been two contributors at indeterminate levels. Star power, or lack thereof, has also been key. From “The Bullets, the Wizards, and Washington, D.C. Basketball”:
The interests of traditional fans in teams often featured identification with the team’s star players. The Baltimore Bullets had two stars. Unfortunately, the team lost the most dynamic figure of the pair (Earl Monroe). Once the workmanlike Wes Unseld and Elvin Hayes left the scene in the early 1980s, the team lacked star power for several years. The Bullets’ limited star power coincided with the league’s new marketing approach to promote its stars. Figures like Dr. J, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and Michael Jordan appeared in televised games, promotions, and commercials, and they captured the general interests of new fans through the power of identification. Washington’s basketball team had a star three times during the 15 seasons since the mid-1990s. The sales of tickets, publicity, and television coverage all increased. The team reached the playoffs on five occasions, advancing to the next round once. Each team-star relationship ended badly, undermining the gains from fan identification. The executives traded Chris Webber, they ended their partnership with Michael Jordan, and they traded Gilbert Arenas after his firearms incident.
The Wizards franchise and its fans now hope, and clearly think, that Wall, and perhaps even more so Bradley Beal, will become the star(s) so desperately needed. And with yet another high draft pick in 2013, third overall, maybe team owner Ted Leonsis can add a third piece of star power to what he’s trying to build. Or maybe the Wizards will use the pick to acquire a veteran who might have little equity built-up locally, but who could help those first two stars-in-waiting reach at least one benchmark level of achievement—the playoffs.
Quick ain’t fair, but to really turn the tables you need a jump shot. John Wall and Washington pro basketball aren’t there, because to really attract a crowd, you need to win. And maybe to incrementally build star power otherwise, you simply have to show up, even when only dozens are watching5. (After all, the same technology that decreases attention spans also allows the attention-less to go viral.)
But continuously evident is that stars are really made in the postseason. (Hi, Stephen Curry! Hi, Paul George!) So if John Wall, and the Wizards (and Bradley Beal), ever want to get hyperlocal (or to get the locals hyper), they’re going to have to shine on the national stage while other franchises send their future stars to play the draft lottery.
[5Caveat: this is pointed out with a grain-of-salt, as Wall has thus far been a good ambassador for D.C.—from participating in team-sponsored events such as promoting fitness at local schools, to refereeing a Special Olympics basketball game, to attending Washington Mystics WNBA games, to attending the White House Easter Egg roll (and watching President Obama miss 13 shots in a row), to partaking in nightlife at establishments like Stadium Club.]