- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 22, 2007

The emergence of Gilbert Arenas and his teammates as credible playoff contenders is turning Verizon Center into one of the hottest arenas in the NBA, and Washington Wizards officials say the team is on pace for its best year financially.

Once the laughingstock of the Eastern Conference, the Wizards have transformed a once half-empty downtown facility into one of the toughest tickets in the league, buoyed by a 20 percent increase in sales of season-ticket packages.

“This is indescribable … totally our most exciting year,” said Wizards president Susan O’Malley, who began working for the team in 1986. “People had just been waiting for this team to break out.”

Through 27 home dates, the Wizards have sold out 14 games — including six of the past seven — and are averaging 18,271 in attendance, an increase of more than 2,100 (13 percent) over the same period last season. The Wizards now rank 10th in NBA in attendance, up from 14th last season.

The attendance increase comes even after the team raised tickets prices more than 50 percent for some of the most desirable seats at Verizon Center. The price increase, coupled with the higher attendance, has boosted revenue to all-time highs, O’Malley said. The team recently announced it will keep prices flat for next season.

Not since Michael Jordan’s stint in the District between 2001 and 2003 have fans flocked to Wizards games in such numbers. But team officials are even reluctant to compare those two seasons to this year. Jordan’s presence led to sellouts at Verizon Center for two entire seasons, but Wizards officials said this season could result in higher revenue because of the likelihood of the team being involved in at least one playoff series.

“This year will be our best year ever when all is said and done,” said Mark Schiponi, the Wizards’ vice president of sales. “That was a different kind of event, where people said, ‘Yeah, I saw Jordan play.’ Whereas this year, people are saying, ‘Man, I really like this team.’ ”

NBA observers said the Wizards are on a path to have a strong, long-term level of fan interest even Jordan couldn’t provide.

“That was not the kind of sustainable fan loyalty that every franchise is looking for,” said Ray Artigue, executive director of the WP Carey Sports Business MBA Program at Arizona State and a former vice president of marketing with the Phoenix Suns. “It was more of an infatuation than a love affair with a franchise. It was not the deep-rooted love of a franchise you want, but I think they’re on that road now, and you can see it in their attendance.

“I really think they’re doing a fine job of putting whatever was in their past behind them.”

Even Wizards players said the excitement around this team is different than it was during the Jordan years.

“I’m not sure that management at that point knew what was going on,” center Brendan Haywood said. “Do you go with a youth movement and play all the young guys? … Or do you want to get good veterans in here because we had MJ and you want to make one good run with MJ because he came back? We were good enough to make a run. The team really didn’t have a direction, and now things have changed a little bit.”

Opposing coaches said that, unlike past years when dysfunction between players, coaches and the front office was the norm, things seem to be working for the Wizards from the top down.

“When the owner gives the [general manager] and the coach the ability to work together and put the program together, then it can get done,” San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. “There are three levels in every organization, and usually there is a problem at one of those levels and it can’t get done. But apparently that’s working pretty smoothly here now because they’re getting it done.”

A key indicator of whether fans are sold on a team is the number of people buying multigame plans instead of single-game tickets. Schiponi said the Wizards have a season-ticket base of nearly 12,000, up from 10,000 last season. Last year, the club reported a season-ticket renewal rate of about 90 percent, well above the league average. Early data suggest renewals will be above 90 percent for next season, Schiponi said.

Walk-up and single-game sales are flat from last year, but Wizards officials attribute that to fewer tickets being available. Sales of partial season-ticket plans are up 15 percent; the team said sales of special-ticket plans around the Christmas holiday nearly tripled over last year, and the team even sold 200 season-ticket packages in January after the season was already half over.

Meanwhile, the Wizards said sales to large groups have risen 22 percent and now lead the NBA. Those group sales have helped drive weekend attendance; the Wizards have played 10 games on Friday nights and weekends, with nine of those games selling out. Getting a full house for weeknight games has proved harder, but the team’s average weekday attendance is still higher than the average attendance for all games last season.

Nationally, fans also are taking note. Crowds for Wizards games on the road have spiked, and the team will make nine regular-season appearances on ESPN and ABC, up from five last season.

“I think this area is a hotbed for basketball,” O’Malley said. “I think there was an enormous number of basketball fans who were on the sidelines. But people believe in this team. They adore this team.”

Staff writer John N. Mitchell contributed to this article.

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