Saturday night, on my last night at home in Maryland for the holiday, I drove into Washington, D.C., with my brothers and mom to watch the Washington Wizards take on the New Orleans Hornets.
The event itself featured a number of moments that, in theory, should have been exciting to the more than 17,000 fans in attendance. The Wizards currently sit at second in the Eastern Conference standings. Hornets center Anthony Davis is an MVP candidate, and third-year Wizards guard Bradley Beal made his first start of the season after a promising sophomore campaign.
The game did not disappoint. Although the hometown team led by as many as 10 points in the fourth quarter, the Hornets closed the gap to within three, with the ball, in the final seconds of the contest. Only a late defensive stop by the Wiz preserved an 83-80 game.
Saturday night game. Stars on the court. Nailbiter until the end. If you were to guess when the crowd was loudest, you might posit that the moment came during Beal’s introduction, or during a particularly impressive Davis putback, or, most likely, in the game’s closing moments.
You would be wrong. With 9:55 remaining in the fourth quarter, New Orleans guard Austin Rivers stepped up to take two free throws. The crowd in the lower level rose to its feet, booing to a fever pitch. Rivers missed his first shot, and the fans exalted. With the whole stadium standing, the guard clanked his second shot; the building exploded with fans jumping up and down.
Such enthusiasm for missed free throws in what was then a nine-point game certainly seems bizarre. Perhaps the Wizards have particularly rabid fans?
Alas, only one explanation could suffice. As fans celebrated Rivers’ misses, they screamed, “Free chicken!”
Before the fourth quarter began, the PA announcer declared that if a Hornets player missed two consecutive free throws, every fan in attendance would earn a free Chick-fil-A sandwich. The crowd settled down after winning its prize. During the Hornets’ next free throws, the stadium was silent. Indeed, the woman behind me asked me to sit during the final possession of a three-point game. The crowd was in it for the chicken all along.
I wish I’d been surprised. I have been going to Wizards games for as long as I can remember, and, except during the few playoffs matchups the team has been able to earn, the crowd always gets most excited during these promotional, diversionary moments.
The shame is that, based on my very scientific process of personal observation, the number of these promotions and the amount that fans pay attention to them are both increasing. As high definition TVs get better and cheaper, there is less incentive for fans to purchase tickets, pay for parking and buy overpriced stadium food to watch games. Team executives need to bring in fans to try to maximize profit; one way is to provide alternative forms of entertainment.
Any sports fan should cringe at this development: It denigrates the actual sporting event on the court and demonstrates just how shallow the fan base is. My favorite memories from Wizards games are when the crowd chanted for a local hero to take the floor as a rookie; when Gilbert Arenas hit game-winning three pointers; and when Andray Blatche and Javale McGee ran around the court giving high fives after a win in a meaningless mid-season game. The crowd is fully involved in the adrenaline rush that only sports can provide. Cheapening this experience through alternative forms of entertainment should therefore dishearten non-sports fans as well.
I bookended my Thanksgiving break between sporting events: the Wizards game on the second Saturday, the Harvard-Yale football game on the first. While I experienced disappointment at home, the Wizards game boosted my appreciation for college sports. At Harvard-Yale, no student came for a t-shirt toss or the promise of free chicken. All were there for no other reason than to cheer on their school, fully engrossed in the contest at hand.
While sitting during the closing minutes of the Wizards game was expected, sitting in Cambridge would have been unthinkable.