This is how chronic losing looked in the far corner of Verizon Center: In Mezzanine 413, as the Washington Wizards continued their slog through yet another lousy season, the upper-level section at a recent game was bereft of warm bodies and any buzz.
“Not a lot of people,” season-ticket holder Phil Fadul said of quiet, spacious 413, where he and his brother share a pair of second-row seats at a cost of about $1,100 for the season. There are 16 rows in the section; were there even 16 people sitting down for the game against the similarly dreadful Charlotte Bobcats?
“Two dozen,” Fadul guessed.
He gets why people aren’t flocking to 413 to see the Wizards, one of the National Basketball Association’s worst teams, at 4-18 entering Friday’s game in Toronto. “This is a frustrating team to watch,” said Fadul, 29, who works for an intellectual-property law firm in the District. “Very frustrating.”
But there’s a funny thing about the manifest misery of the Washington Wizards: They’re selling more tickets this season than last, when they were bad, but not this bad.
Average attendance for home games — measured by tickets sold, not tickets used — is up, albeit just barely: Exactly 48 more per game, according to the team.
Most of the ultra-premium courtside seats (face value: $850 to $2,500 per ticket per game) have sold out, and overall season ticket sales are up by about 20 pecent, to more than 8,000.
The majority were sold before the lockout-truncated season began. But despite the team’s odious play and the depressed resale market for Wizards tickets (some mezzanine seats have been resold for much less than the $16 Fadul paid for each of his), Fadul not only plans to renew his season tickets, but he wants better, more expensive ones.
“It [stinks] that seats are selling for like $3 and $5, but I like being a season-ticket holder,” he said. “I regretted doing season tickets when we were in that losing streak. But we’ll get better.”
Optimism is the lifeblood of professional sports fandom in the District, where winning is the exception. That’s particularly true among fans of the Wizards — the team has lost nearly three-quarters of its games since it last made the playoffs, in 2008, yet fans are aggressively selling the promise of better days . . . eventually.
The team with the second-fewest wins in the league over the past four seasons is amid a multi-year rebuilding process that majority owner Ted Leonsis insists can do for the Wizards what a major makeover did for his Capitals, who are anything but afterthoughts in the National Hockey League.
But the process will be painful, Leonsis cautioned early and often. The young Wizards opened this season with eight consecutive losses.
After a humiliating defeat in Philadelphia last week, the franchise fired head coach Flip Saunders, giving the 2011-12 Wizards the temporary distinction of having as many head coaches as wins, with two of each.
Still, in Ted they trust. At least for now.
“There could be problems [selling tickets in future seasons] with the way the team is performing, but people are willing to give Leonsis a chance,” said sportsmarketing consultant Bill Sutton, who works with multiple NBA teams, although not the Wizards. “If you like the owner, you’re going to give him more sway. And the Washington market is in love with Ted Leonsis. People have an unbelievable amount of faith in him.”
Maybe not everybody.
Luke Russert, the MSNBC correspondent whose family has held Wizards season tickets since 1994, called a sports-talk show on the team’s flagship radio station weeks into the season to voice his disgust with the team’s lousy play.
“There have been a lot of bad Wizards teams since 1994; this one is so fundamentally awful, I can’t give the tickets away,” Russert said on “The Mike Wise Show with Holden Kushner” on WJFK “The Fan” (106.7 FM). Russert called the team an “abomination” and said: “I don’t see how they get better from this.”
But here’s what Russert didn’t say: whether he plans to give up his expensive seats next season.
Bargain hunter’s bonanza
Outside the arena before a recent game, nine ticket scalpers clustered near the Gallery Place Metro station exit on F Street NW, scanning for potential buyers. There were few nibbles.
“It’s easier to sell the circus than the Wizards,” one scalper said.
“We used to go get seafood after,” said another. “Now we get Oodles of Noodles. It’s all we can afford.”
“Nobody wants to see this team,” complained a third.
The scalpers declined to give their names. Inside the arena, an announcement boomed over the public-address system: “It is illegal to buy or sell tickets outside the Verizon Center.”