Which Came First: The (Free) Chicken or the Home Court Advantage? | Wizards Blog Truth About It.net

Which Came First: The (Free) Chicken or the Home Court Advantage?

Updated: February 3, 2017
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photo via @paulcoro

Just about everybody who, in the past few seasons, has been to a Wizards game at the Verizon Center, seen a Wizards home game on television, or even read much about the Wizards is aware that there is often little-to-no home advantage to be had for the home team in Washington. The big exception to this, of course, is during the fourth quarter when an opposing player is at the free-throw line and free chicken sandwiches from Chick-fil-A are on the line.

Plenty of other franchises from every sport have attendance problems and fanbase problems(1), and the reasons vary from organization to organization and city to city. Maybe that city isn’t a (insert sport) city, like how people always claim Los Angeles isn’t a football city. Or maybe the stadium is difficult to get to, like FedEx Field is for Redskins fans. Or maybe the team is just terrible or boring or a combination of the two, like the Cleveland Browns are.

The Wizards are a bit tougher to nail down.

D.C. isn’t a basketball haven like Los Angeles or Oakland or New York, but it’s also not fair to say it’s not a basketball city—both the District and its surrounding sub-cities have a long and fairly rich history of basketball excellence. The stadium could not be much easier to get to for people who live in or around the city, as the Verizon Center is located several hundred feet from the Gallery Place/Chinatown Metro stop, which serves the Red, Green, and Yellow Lines, and it’s just a few blocks from the Metro Center stop, which serves the Red, Orange, Blue, and Silver Lines. Everybody who has access to the Metro is within one train ride and a short walk of Wizards games, and parking isn’t impossible for those who wish to drive.

The final issue is the biggest culprit when it comes to the Wiz: The last time the franchise won at least 50 games or at least 60 percent of its games was the 1978-79 season, and its collective record over the past 10 full seasons is just 332-472 (.413). Even when the team has been respectable and made the postseason, early exits have typically followed. That ’78-79 season was also the last time the Wizards/Bullets made it past the second round of the playoffs; in the 37 full seasons that have since passed, Washington has managed four second-round exits, 10 first-round exits, and 23 seasons that ended with the regular season.

The counterpoint to that: The Wizards are kinda good these days. While last season was a disaster that stunted the team’s growth and led to a coaching change and plenty of roster turnover, it still featured a 41-41 record, which is usually good enough for the 8-seed in the Eastern Conference. Over the two previous seasons, Washington went 90-74, the team’s best two-season record since, of course, the 1977-79 stretch.

All that is to say three things. First, Washington has been a dreadful basketball franchise for more than 35 years. Second, this group of Wizarding fellows has been the most successful bunch the city has seen in more than 35 years and local fans should respect that by showing up and supporting a very exciting basketball team. Third, every time this franchise appears to be on the upswing, a swift kick to the groin typically ensues, so fans are understandably weary.

That brings us to where we find ourselves today. The Wizards, after dispatching the lowly Los Angeles Lakers Thursday night, have won 16 home games in a row and boast a remarkable 29-20 record. If the season ended today, the team would have its sixth-best season ever by winning percentage (.592) and its best by more than 30 points in the Wizards era.

In theory, a home winning streak of that magnitude, coupled with the team’s general winnings ways of late, would get the people out of their houses and into the stands, but that’s only kind of true. I tracked the official announced attendance of each Wizards home game during the streak, as well as the attendance of the last home game the Wizards lost, which also the team’s first home game in December, and found some interesting little nuggets.

First, the results:

  • Tuesday, 12/6, Magic: 12,116; 60% *Last time Wizards lost at home
  • Thursday, 12/8, Nuggets: 12,645; 63%
  • Saturday, 12/10, Bucks: 14,816; 73%
  • Wednesday, 12/14, Hornets: 13,447; 67%
  • Friday, 12/16, Pistons: 15,573; 77%
  • Sunday, 12/18, Clippers: 17,380; 86% *Afternoon game
  • Monday, 12/26, Bucks: 15,773; 78%
  • Wednesday, 12/28, Pacers: 16,172; 80%
  • Friday, 12/30, Nets: 16,461; 82%
  • Friday, 1/6, Timberwolves: 18,686; 93% *Best attendance during stretch
  • Tuesday, 1/10, Bulls: 14,361; 71% *First time over .500 all season
  • Saturday, 1/14, 76ers: 17,880; 89%
  • Monday, 1/16, Trail Blazers: 17,395; 86%
  • Wednesday, 1/18, Grizzlies: 15,079; 75%
  • Tuesday, 1/24, Celtics: 16,387; 81% *Funeral game
  • Tuesday, 1/31, Knicks: 16,683; 83%
  • Thursday, 2/2, Lakers: 16,473; 82%

Some takeaways from all of that:

  • The Wizards dropped to 7-13 after losing that Dec. 6 game to the Magic. After beating the Lakers Thursday, they improved to 29-20.
  • The average home attendance in December was 14,931. Only one game in January had that few people in attendance.
  • The average home attendance in January was 16,639. Only one game in December had that many people in attendance.
  • More than 16,300 people have attended five of the past six home games, with the one exception being a Wednesday game against the Grizzlies. Four of those five games have been on weeknights.
  • Only one game managed at least 90 percent capacity over that stretch, but 22 NBA teams average 90 percent capacity at home games this season.

On Thursday night, with the Lakers in town, there was no question the place would be packed with purple and gold jerseys, and while the crowd was dotted with Lakers colors, the crowd itself wasn’t exactly overwhelming.

Once the game got going, the theme continued. Plenty of noise was made for the Wizards, but there were stretches in which the team that had traveled 2,700 miles appeared to have the most support.

The Wizards led by 11 entering the fourth quarter, but a lineup of Trey Burke, Tomas Satoransky, Kelly Oubre, Markieff Morris, and Jason Smith let that quickly disintegrate. Jordan Clarkson hit a 3-pointer to open the quarter, Morris split a pair of free throws, then Lou Williams drew a touch call on 3-point attempt. Lakers fans were beginning to take over the stadium, but the Wizards faithful responded with some well-intentioned “De-Fense” chants. After a few ugly Wizards possessions, featuring a blocked shot, a shot clock violation, and a turnover, Larry Nance Jr. threw down a monster alley-oop in transition that sent the place into complete hysteria.

Just two minutes into the period, the lead had been cut to four and John Wall and Bradley Beal were forced back into the game in favor of Burke and Satoransky. Wall quickly went into takeover mode, scoring eight points on three shots over a 61-second span, and finally the locals began to take control of the home stadium.

After Wall iced the game—with an assist from Beal on the chasedown block of the season—he strolled to the free-throw line for his formality free throws, serenaded by MVP chants as he drilled four in a row.

The Lakers fans were out in abundance, but it wasn’t quite to the level of last season’s visit, when Kobe Bryant, in his last game ever at the Verizon Center, took over the game late and delivered a loss to the home team. That, while certainly not great for the Wizards crowd, was an exception. It was the last chance locals had to see one of the game’s elites play. The rampant booing of the Wizards was a whole other problem that night, but the cheering for Bryant’s buckets was to be expected.

As Beal noted, this was different.

Morris, for his part, offered this about the Lakers fans: “They got a lot of Lakers fans, it’s not our fans. They got Lakers fans everywhere, so you can’t really put it on our crowd. They were there when we needed them, and we got the win for them. Let the Lakers go, they’ll be back next game.”

Let’s revisit the numbers. Per ESPN, the Lakers, who are terrible, have the fourth-best road attendance in the NBA, behind just the Golden State Warriors, Cleveland Cavaliers, and San Antonio Spurs, who are all really good. The average NBA stadium is 95.8 percent full when the Lakers are the visiting team; the Verizon Center was just 82 percent full on Thursday.

The Wizards, even after a considerable spike in January (and one game in February), still have the league’s fourth-worst home attendance by capacity, at just 77.2 percent. By average total attendance, they’re sixth-worst, at just 15,657. By record, they’re the league’s ninth-best team, and four more teams are just two games or fewer ahead of them. The only two teams to have more home wins than Washington’s 21 are the Warriors and Cavs, who have 22 apiece.

Maybe this is the season the Wizards turn everything around and become a legitimate top-7 team. Maybe this is the season they finally make it to the Eastern Conference Finals. Maybe they continue to play borderline .600 basketball over the next three or four seasons and actually sneak into a Finals appearance at some point.

The question is: Will the fans follow?

The next home game is Saturday, against the 19-31 New Orleans Pelicans, who, despite their record, are the 12th-best road team by attendance percentage. The Wiz will enter that game riding a 16-game home win streak, and a win would give them a very clean 30-20 record. If the Verizon Center is less than 90 percent full—and I have to reiterate that 22 teams average 90 percent attendance at home, and the Pelicans’ road games average 92.9 percent attendance—it’s yet another giant black mark on this fan base.

  1. These are not the same thing. An attendance problem is one in which the fans don’t show up to the games. A fanbase problem is one in which the fans don’t care about the team. The Wizards have, over the past decade or so, had both problems.
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Bryan Frantz
Reporter / Writer at TAI
Bryan is a D.C. native with a degree in something or other from UNC. He has important, interesting hobbies, but mostly he just weeps over D.C. sports teams. You can find him on the Metro, inevitably complaining about Red Line delays.