On a day when D.C. sports fans had their share of options, with the Nationals and Washington’s NFL team both playing at home, a few thousand dedicated and passionate supporters headed to the Verizon Center, thundersticks in tow, hoping to cheer the Washington Mystics on to the second round of the WNBA playoffs for the first time since 2002.
After upsetting the New York Liberty in front of a sold-out Madison Square Garden crowd on Friday night in a double overtime thriller, the Mystics had a chance to put a celebratory exclamation point on a successful season in front of their home crowd.
Instead, in a performance that coach Mike Thibault could only call “embarrassing,” the Mystics lost to the Liberty 86–68 on Sunday, sending the series back to New York for a sudden-death game. Until the bitter end — when former league MVP Tina Charles took control of the game for the Liberty — desperate cheers rang out from the sparse but vocal audience full of diehard fans: “Come on Mystics, this is our house.”
Unfortunately, the Verizon Center might not be the Mystics’ house for much longer.
Last week, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, along with Mystics and Wizards owner Ted Leonsis, announced their plan to build a new sports arena at St. Elizabeths East in Ward 8. The arena will serve as a practice facility for the Wizards and as the home court for the Mystics. The facility, which is expected to cost $55 million to build, will be 90 percent funded by taxpayers, and is being touted as a project that will revitalize an area of the district so impoverished that one resident called it “the neglected stepchild of D.C.”
The move is also being portrayed as a boon for the Mystics: Leonsis said the deal is “paying the women’s basketball team their due.”
“[F]or them to have their own arena, their own locker rooms, their own training facility, it makes them feel special. They’re not sharing,” Leonsis said at a press conference, pointing out that currently the Mystics have to share a locker room with touring musicians who perform at the Verizon Center.
“I’m really excited, and I can’t wait until it’s finished. It will be a full gym to play in, really loud.” Mystics player Emma Meesseman said in a video on the Mystics site, produced by the Leonsis-owned Monumental Sports & Entertainment. “I think it’s going to be great for the Mystics.”
But to Mystics fans, those familiar with sports economics, and anyone who looks deeper into the deal, it’s hard to understand how this is a good move for the Mystics.
“The idea that this helps the Mystics or the WNBA in any real way is ridiculous,” David Berri, a Professor of Economics at Southern Utah University, told ThinkProgress. “It sounds to me like they want a practice facility for the NBA team, they want the public to fund it, and they’re adding the Mystics as PR.”
The arena, which is scheduled to be built by the 2018 season, is slated to seat 5,000 people. The reported attendance for the Mystics’ playoff game on Sunday was 6,619. Their average attendance this season was 7,710, with their largest crowd being reported as 17,114. Even taking into account the fact that sponsors often buy up large chunks of tickets that go unused — an issue across the sporting landscape — a 5,000-seat arena still feels like a step backwards.
“As long-term fans, this is not okay,” Neena Chaudhry, who has had season tickets to the Mystics games for 15 years, told ThinkProgress. “Personally, I think it shows a real lack of confidence in the Mystics and their fans.”
Chaudhry and her friends, who were decked out in Mystics gear and spent all four quarters of the game on Sunday screaming at the refs, worried about the impact the out-of-the-way location of the new arena will have on fan attendance — including their own. The Congress Heights metro stop is close to the new arena, but it’s quite a bit further to travel than the centrally located Verizon Center. Even Leonsis admitted that it was going to take years for fans to get used to going to that part of the city to watch games.
As die-hard Mystics supporters since the beginning, Chaudhry and her friends remember when the team used to set attendance records, before a circus of 13 coaches in 19 years and the subsequent subpar seasons took its toll on the fans and the popularity of the team. They worry that the inconvenient location and smaller capacity of the proposed arena will impede future growth of the fanbase.
“It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy,” Chaudhry’s friend and fellow Mystics season-ticket holder Jennifer Mezey said. “[The owners] don’t invest in the team, which means the quality of the play takes a hit and the team doesn’t get coverage. Then the fans don’t come, and they say, ‘No fans are here, so we’re not going to invest in it.’”
According to Berri, this is actually a win-win situation for the owners, who get a shiny new practice facility to help them recruit NBA talent, while “artificially” capping the demand for the Mystics at 5,000. This limits the amount of financial success possible for the Mystics, which then serves to keep the already-paltry WNBA salaries in check. Currently, maximum salary a WNBA player can be paid is $109,500 — and that much only goes to veteran superstars. This continues to bolster the perception that the WNBA is struggling, and that its star players, some of the best basketball players in the world, should simply be happy with what they can get.
“We thought [the WNBA] would have broken through by now,” NBA commissioner Adam Silver said last week, as reported by BuzzFeed. “We thought ratings and attendance would be higher.”
As espnW’s Michelle Voepel wrote, Silver’s comments weren’t only problematic because they became the most covered story at the start of the WNBA playoffs, but because Silver offered no specifics about what exactly would constitute success.
The WNBA can’t be compared directly to the NBA due to the huge disparity in media coverage between men’s and women’s sports and the different ages of the leagues. It’s also difficult to compare the WNBA to other pro women’s sports leagues, such as the National Women’s Soccer League, which is still in its infancy. It currently is what it is: A 19-year-old league averaging 7,184 fans per game with a TV deal with ESPN worth $12 million a year.
It’s a league coming off of the most-watched playoffs in seven years, with salaries so small that high-profile players such as Brittney Griner and Diana Tuarasi have to play overseas during the off-season. (Tuarasi actually sat out this WNBA season because her Russian team paid her to do so.)
Overall, the league still needs room to grow — compared to most successful sports leagues, the WNBA is still a kid — and the individual teams need support from their ownership to help actually grow their audience, not just improve the optics of the fanbases they currently have.
As for the Mystics, the move itself is completely out of the players’ hands, but the game against the Liberty on Tuesday night isn’t. So for now, the team is focused on booking a trip to the Conference Final and ensuring that at least one more Mystics game is played in the Verizon Center in 2015.
“Some stuff we can’t control,” veteran Mystic point guard Ivory Latta said after the game when asked about the potential move to a smaller arena and the impact it might have on crowd support. “We expect our fans, whether we’re in a tight arena or not, to come out and support us.”