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Wizards' promotions go beyond court boundaries

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WASHINGTON -- Once, the Washington Wizards had Michael Jordan wearing their uniform, and that was a marketer's dream.

When the team landed Jordan as a player in 2001, it was like adding Babe Ruth to the Yankees' lineup, or signing the Beatles to play Shea Stadium.

But after two years of sellout crowds and nationally televised games (but middling won-lost records) MJ drove away from MCI Center for the last time in a gleaming convertible. Attendance, which had averaged 20,424 in the two Jordan years, slipped 23 percent last season to a more Wizards-like 15,740.

A franchise accustomed to reinventing itself suddenly needed a new identity. Again.

And the team was left to ponder how to replace Jordan as a sales magnet. The answer, it decided, is that you don't.

Rather than bringing in aging stars as it once did -- Jordan, Jerry Stackhouse and Mitch Richmond, among others -- the franchise is seeking to re-establish itself this season by stockpiling younger talent, adopting a new slogan ("Pure Energy") and staging promotions such as "singles nights" and baby-crawling races. The first singles event, featuring Ravens safety Will Demps as the eligible bachelor, was held last Wednesday.

The club's marketing strategy includes reaching out to Baltimore, where it had played until moving to the Washington area in 1973. Beginning in 1988-89, the then-Bullets played three or four games a year in Baltimore, but that stopped in the 1997-98 season, when the team moved from US Airways Arena in Landover (the former Capital Centre) to MCI Center and changed its name to Wizards.

"Part of the deal for MCI Center ... was that we play 41 games here," says Susan O'Malley, the team's president. "We are looking at playing a preseason game in Baltimore, maybe next season."

The club works with bus companies to ferry Baltimore groups to Washington and back for games.

No matter where it plays, the team (3-4) knows it would sell more tickets if it won a little more.

More than most clubs, it's important for the Wizards to play well early to demonstrate a glimmer of promise and show fans that this season can be different from the last. NBA teams' performance in November and December "always has a dramatic impact on later ticket sales. With the Wizards, that's especially true," O'Malley says.

The Wizards don't necessarily have to make the playoffs -- it's happened just once in the past 15 seasons -- but they must show progress.

"You don't have to win every year," says David Carter, president of the Sports Business Group in Los Angeles. "People are going to understand if there is a season-ending injury or something. But you need to look like you're trying your very best to put the team in a position to win."

Of course, gimmicks don't hurt, either. If fans can no longer see "Air Jordan," at least they can come to a game and maybe get a date.

That was the premise behind the first "Singles Night," which the Wizards staged in conjunction with their victory over the Orlando Magic.

About 350 single men and women paid $50 each for tickets to the game and pre- and post-game parties.

The evening featured "speed dating" in which the guys changed seats every quarter, to sit next to a different woman each time.

At halftime, Demps strolled to center court to play a "dating game" with three randomly selected contestants. Demps was greeted with a lukewarm reception from the pro-Redskins crowd.

A Raven was selected instead of a Redskin because "we work often on community events with the Ravens' PR staff," says Ann Nicolaides, the Wizards' vice president for marketing. "We just said, 'Is there anybody that may be of interest?' and Will happens to be very attractive. We knew he was a looker."

"Knowing that I'm away from my territory, I got booed at the beginning," Demps said, laughing about the experience afterward.

The third-year player sat on one side of a black curtain and asked questions to women seated out of his view. One of Demps' queries -- in this case a request: "When I intercept a pass and run it back for a score, I like to do my touchdown dance. Show the crowd the celebration dance you would do if you win the date with me tonight!"

Demps had no regrets about choosing Margarita Correa, 29, of Kensington.

"Gorgeous. She was amazing," said Demps, who had previously turned down a tryout for TV's The Bachelor. "I'm excited. You never know what the dating game can bring. It was fun."

Correa won a roundtrip airline ticket and a date with Demps.

"It was really awkward," she said of answering questions before the crowd of 15,042. But she was pleased with the result. "I didn't know who he was. He's gorgeous."

After the game, Wizards center Brendan Haywood participated in a similar dating contest. Point guard Gilbert Arenas has committed to a future such event.

The Wizards have scheduled more singles nights for Dec. 10. Jan. 6, March 2 and April 5.

The idea is to get fans to a game for the first time and hope they like it enough to come back.

While not unique, singles nights have not been used much at pro sports' upper echelons.

"A lot of it has been done certainly in the minor league systems," says Paul Swangard, managing director at the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon. "Minor leagues are the development leagues for players and for marketing."

The WTA held a singles night in conjunction with its tennis matches in Los Angeles last Wednesday -- with mixed success. Loud conversation from a restaurant disturbed players competing on the court.

The Wizards also stage baby- crawling contests. The first one was Sunday, coinciding with a "Kids Day" promotion in which children 15 and younger could buy a $15 upper level ticket when accompanied by an adult.

On any given night, Wizards executives know they can attract 10,000 fans who hold some type of season-ticket plan. They are trying to raise that to the Jordan-era level of about 14,000.

If singles events can help, then bring them on, O'Malley says. "People just want to see if this [event] is Loserville. If it works, then I think it can be explosive," she says.

Ryan Young contributed to this article.

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