- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 13, 2003

The $2 Michael Jordan Wizards jersey available on EBay yesterday said it all.

The Washington Wizards rode to national prominence and unprecedented team revenues during the Jordan era, generating far more buzz and money than their .451 winning percentage with Jordan on the court would warrant. Now, with Jordan retired from the court and fully removed from the organization, the Wizards are more poised than ever to return to their ugly anonymity of the mid- and late-1990s.

Already, team officials were bracing for a sharp drop in revenue and an end to the team-record 82-game sellout streak fostered by Jordan as player. With Jordan ousted from the organization and the former superstar enraged over what he called “a callous refusal” by owner Abe Pollin to justify the move, the Wizards’ national profile will take another hefty fall, sports industry executives say.

A quick flood yesterday of heavily discounted Wizards merchandise on secondary retail markets was the first tangible sign. Soon, national TV schedules for next season, local broadcast ratings, attendance both at home and on the road, and overall merchandise sales will more fully chronicle the Wizards’ likely plunge. In other words, the Wizards’ former unofficial name as “the Los Angeles Clippers of the East” is primed for an unwelcome return.

“They’re going to drop right back to a similar level of where they were before he got [to Washington], or maybe just a bit better,” said Bob Williams, president of Burns Sports & Celebrities in Chicago. “Michael put a face on a faceless organization, and that’s not easy to just go out and replace. Teams that compete at their level ordinarily don’t get an overabundance of national coverage and exposure.”

The immediate pre-Jordan era was defined, in part, by a total lack of national TV exposure, plenty of empty seats at MCI Center and no playoff appearances — things Wizards officials are loath to see return despite Pollin’s firm insistence that Jordan not return. Pollin, who declined to comment beyond a prepared statement yesterday, did concede last month the potential for lower ticket sales and revenues next season.

Complicating any efforts to begin marketing the new-era Wizards is a total lack of definition of what the organization will look like. The team must find a new general manager after Wes Unseld begins his leave of absence in late June. Coach Doug Collins also is likely to depart, as is a significant portion of the roster.

“The immediate effect in terms of profile and buzz is devastating. Jordan’s the one that put them on the map,” said Ryan Schinman, president of Platinum Rye Entertainment, a New York-based sports marketing company. “They’re going to need a new brand for themselves. They’re going to need to find other marquee players and personalities.”

While heavy national TV exposure next season for the Wizards is unlikely once schedules are set this summer, Comcast SportsNet, the team’s local TV rights holders, is staying the course. In the midst of a long-term contract with the Wizards, CSN is obligated to air as many Wizards games as its schedule and national broadcast rules allow.

“I view change with hope and optimism,” said Sam Schroeder, CSN general manager. “We knew something had to happen with this situation, and we look forward with great interest to what the new-look Wizards will be. But as far as scheduling, we will approach this next season as we do every year. We will have the Wizards on as much as we can, and frankly, we want it that way.”

Last month, editors for Forbes magazine, which calculates estimated values for pro sports franchises annually, said the value for the Wizards would fall at least 10 to 15 percent from the current $278million when Jordan retired as a player.

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