- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Caron Butler looks directly at the camera, appearing humble and sincere. Soft, slow piano music plays in the background.

“We’re going through trying times right now,” the Washington Wizards forward says. “Next year, we’ll be shining again.”

Butler’s teammate Antawn Jamison appears in a similar commercial. They are hardly standard pitches to potential ticket buyers. Absent of catchy slogans and slickly edited highlight packages, they are straightforward spots directed at fans who endured a 63-loss season.

“We wanted to take a very simple, honest approach,” said Peter Biche, the Wizards’ president of business operations. “We can’t not acknowledge the challenges of the season. What they said was very honest and very unscripted. They were speaking from the heart. These are two pretty good guys, and they know when the team isn’t playing well it’s tough on the fans.”

Direct messages like this one, in which teams acknowledge a bad season and the fan frustration that stems from it, have become more common. While few teams have gone so far as to produce full television spots, many executives have penned open letters to fans or posted video messages on their Web sites.

In a recent video produced by the Memphis Grizzlies, forward Hakim Warrick and coach Lionel Hollins acknowledged “a tough year” and thanked fans for their support.

Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis is one of several team owners who regularly blogs about his team’s success and losses. And it is now standard practice for teams to include a letter from the owner or general manager with every season-ticket renewal form.

“In the harshest of times, the people potentially buying want to see higher and higher leadership doing the sales,” said John Rowady, president of rEvolution, a sports marketing and media agency in Chicago. “When the times are good, you have your sales staff there, but in time like this, people want to be engaged by the guys they don’t normally get to. I think that it builds a lot of good will.”

Executives have penned letters explaining unpopular trades, addressing locker room controversies or rebutting negative media reports. After the NFL’s Denver Broncos traded disgruntled quarterback Jay Cutler last month, team owner Pat Bowlen wrote to fans detailing the reasons for the decision.

“If someone does not wish to be with us as we head in this direction, then we will move on, and move forward,” Bowlen wrote.

Amid a losing season last summer, officials with baseball’s Cincinnati Reds wrote a letter to fans acknowledging the team did not perform up to expectations and explaining the decision to trade away popular outfielders Ken Griffey Jr. and Adam Dunn.

“We ask your continued patience as we build the roster that will get us back on top,” team president Bob Castellini and general manager Walt Jocketty wrote. “We appreciate your support and look forward to seeing you at the ballpark.”

Such direct messages don’t always come simply because a team just completed a losing season. Pat Burrell, who signed with Tampa Bay Rays this past offseason after nine years with the Philadelphia Phillies, took out an ad in Philadelphia newspapers thanking fans for their support during his career and the team’s victory in the World Series.

In the case of the Wizards, of course, the big test will be whether it can carry through on promises to improve on the court.

“We weren’t looking to duck anything. We weren’t looking to sugarcoat it or be evasive,” Biche said. “But the feedback we get from fans is that they get it and that this team has a lot of wins in it if we can get everybody together.”

• Tim Lemke can be reached at tlemke@washingtontimes.com.

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