- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 26, 2001

The Washington Wizards are the Los Angeles Clippers of the East no more.
Since the then-Bullets won their only NBA title in 1978, the franchise has tried just about everything to return to the NBA's competitive and financial elite. They tried a nickname change, a new arena, a head-spinning revolving door of coaches, high-priced free agents, unheralded rookies and even Michael Jordan running the team's front office.
Nothing worked.
But in the course of one prepared statement from Jordan announcing a second comeback to the court, this time with the Wizards, the entire complexion and image of the beleaguered franchise changed.
Wizards season ticket sales exploded as soon as the 4 p.m. announcement hit and are similarly blossoming across the league, with fans in other cities wanting to see Jordan's away games. NBC and Turner Sports, the NBA's national TV partners, are working to add the Wizards to their TV schedules. The pair did not air Washington at all last season, and Turner-owned TNT had only one Wizards game set for this season.

Wizards merchandise sales, among the worst in the NBA, also will catapult into at least the middle of the pack with Jordan, and perhaps among the league's 10 best-selling teams. Within minutes of Jordan's announcement yesterday, NBA.com was selling an authentic Jordan Wizards jersey for $140, and Nike and Champion were handling frenetic jersey orders from retailers nationwide.
"This changes everything for the Wizards," said Brandon Steiner, a New York state sports marketer who frequently works with NBA teams and players. "They instantly move, at least in terms of prominence, from a lower-tier team to the upper tier. Tickets which hadn't been moving in a number of cities sell again. Everyone wants Wizards jerseys, and at least to me it's more intriguing this time because he has less talent around him. In the minds of NBA fans, this team is a player again."
Predictably, the most immediate signal of interest in the new-look Wizards came when team offices were bombarded by ticket seekers. Several hundred season tickets were sold in the first few hours immediately following the announcement, and ticket salesmen planned to stay at the office as long as the phones kept ringing. Before yesterday, interest in Jordan had led a growth of the season ticket base from 10,000 to 12,000.
"It's just so hard to put a number on it; the calls are coming in so fast," Wizards spokesman Matt Williams said. "It's been absolutely crazy."
Single-game tickets go on sale Monday, which should provide another stampede from fans who don't want to make a full season's commitment.
A similar ticket situation actually began weeks ago for other teams around the NBA. Banking on Jordan's return, games against the Wizards, once shunned en masse, quickly became part of miniplans and prominent promotions.
Jordan also promises to be a significant tonic to the NBA on TV, which has suffered through declining ratings since 1996, sometimes by double-digit percentages in a given year. NBC and TNT will set their broadcast schedules by the end of the next week. NBC has the ability to add as many as 11 Wizards broadcasts to its slate and TNT 14. Both are planning on vastly increased audiences, as is Comcast SportsNet, the team's local TV rightsholder.
TBS is already finalizing plans to televise the Wizards' opener in New York against the Knicks on Oct. 30 instead of the Philadelphia-Minnesota game.
"We're excited that Michael is returning," said Dick Ebersol, NBC Sports chairman. "It will be fun to watch the greatest player ever match up against the NBA's new generation of stars."
The ultimate question for the Wizards, however, is how long the Jordan effect will last. Will his playing catapult the franchise into heights never before experienced or provide just a temporary reprieve from one of the most embarrassing stretches of ineptitude in the recent history of pro sports?
"There's a lot of mystery surrounding this," said Sal LaRocca, the NBA's senior vice president of global marketing. "Obviously, we've already seen a lot of short-term interest in the Wizards and Wizards merchandise. But given the events of the last two weeks and the recent state of the Wizards themselves, there are still a lot of unknowns. It will be intriguing to see this develop."

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