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The Washington Bullets finished 11th in the NBA, well ahead of the Utah Jazz and Houston Rockets, two of the four teams in this year's conference finals.

The Bullets' success wasn't in wins; the team toiled in the NBA depths yet again, losing 58 of 82 games. But in attendance, it was among the NBA's best, averaging 15,116 at home games, up from 9,814 only five years ago.

That turnaround is to the credit of 32-year-old team President Susan O'Malley, a onetime direct-response account executive at Earle Palmer Brown Cos., Bethesda, Md.

Now entering her ninth year with the Bullets, which she joined as director of advertising, Ms. O'Malley realized that until the team began winning, it would take a little extra to draw fans to games.

"You're either selling to the avid NBA fan or to the average fan who can recognize marquee names or who's looking for something to do on a particular night," Ms. O'Malley says. "The latter may not come just for the game, but maybe for the country & western line dancing after the game, or for the wedding that's conducted at half time ... or the ugly blazer contest. That's when they find out that it was a lot of fun, and they had a game to watch, too."

That meant a careful separation of advertising, with the newspaper sports section used to target NBA fans and the backs of public buses for image ads, all created in-house. The team uses Bruce & Chato, Southfield, Mich., for radio spots "to talk to the average fan about the value and entertainment that's out there," Ms. O'Malley says.

She says the turnaround strategy was based on a simple, often forgotten, marketing technique-listening to the customer.

"We did focus groups," she says. "It was the two worst nights of my life. They said the team was mediocre, the front office was mediocre, and didn't do anything for the community.

"And they were probably right."

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