Thursday, April 22, 2010

Nats show grit, but no one's watching

Photo by Mark Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
Wil Nieves congratulates Matt Capps at the conclusion of tonight's 6-4 win.
It could have been a fantastic moment at Nationals Park: Matt Capps on the mound, a 2-2 count on Ian Stewart with the tying runners on base in the ninth inning of a tense ballgame. And when Capps blew a 94 mph fastball past Stewart to seal the Nationals' 6-4 win over the Rockies, fireworks shot from the stadium roof as players exchanged high-fives in the middle of the diamond.

The Nats had just pulled off another in a string of gritty victories and again surpassed the .500 mark.

Too bad hardly anyone was there to see it.

This isn't going to be a screed against local sports fans, and it's not going to be a trashing of a Nationals organization that has brought much of this upon itself following back-to-back 100-loss seasons.

It's more an observation of the state of baseball in the District on the third Wednesday in April. The home club is by no means playing great ball right now, but it's somehow finding a way to win on a regular basis and is doing so in an entertaining fashion that should be captivating the town.

Unfortunately, the Nationals' track record over the last four years has left this organization an afterthought among a population far more interested in whether the Caps beat the Canadiens in Game 4 of their Stanley Cup playoff series (they did) and whether the Redskins will draft a quarterback tomorrow night (who knows?).

On a rainy, chilly Wednesday night on South Capitol Street, a paid crowd of 11,191 -- there were perhaps half that many fans actually in attendance -- watched D.C.'s ballclub scrap its way to another victory. It was the smallest crowd in the District since the franchise arrived in 2005, smaller than the previous low of 11,623, set only two days ago.

A grand total of 37,851 fans have attended these last three games against the Rockies. The ballpark is capable of holding more than 41,000 on any one given day.

Yes, it's April. Yes, the weather's miserable. And yes, this franchise has done little to deserve increased attention based on its play the last four seasons. But don't hold that against the 2010 Nationals, who feature only four remaining players from the 2007 squad: Ryan Zimmerman, Cristian Guzman, John Lannan and Justin Maxwell.

These new Nats have more talent than their predecessors (Adam Dunn, Ivan Rodriguez). They have more quality veterans than their predecessors (Adam Kennedy, Matt Capps). They have more exciting young players than their predecessors (Ian Desmond, Tyler Clippard).

And guess what? It's all translating into a better on-field product.

Is this team going to hover around the .500 mark all season? Common sense says no. But did anyone expect Frank Robinson's 2005 club -- a club with far less talent than this one, by the way -- to stand at 50-31 on July 4?

That club also didn't have a midseason reinforcement like Stephen Strasburg waiting in the wings. Imagine what could be if the kid joins the rotation in six weeks and joins a club that's on the fringe of the pennant race.

The defining characteristic of the 2005 Nats (at least during the magical first half of the season) was an ability to eek out close victories late. How many times did they rally in the seventh or eighth inning, then hand a 1-run lead to their rock-solid bullpen to finish off?

This is the part where we mention the 2010 Nats are now 5-0 in games decided by 2 runs or less. They've also got a closer in Capps who is 7-for-7 in save opportunities and a setup man in Tyler Clippard who is 3-0 with an 0.77 ERA and a team-high 14 strikeouts.

And like that 2005 team, this one is beginning to believe in itself.

"Once you win a few of those games, you get a little confidence in yourself," left fielder Josh Willingham said. "You really believe that you can do it. I think that's a lot of it, having that confidence. We've got it right now. We're obviously going to battle you to the 27th out, whether we win or lose."

We're only 15 games into a 162-game marathon, but it's hard not to like what we've seen out of these Nationals. Those hearty few who have trekked out to the ballpark over the last week surely feel that way.

When and if the rest of this town comes to realize it, perhaps victories like tonight's will be met with the kind of enthusiasm a scrappy, above-.500 ballclub deserves.


Sean said...

it really is too early for this sparcecrowdmaggedon....caps are hot right now, its crappy weather for outdoor sports and if you live in the suburbs you cant get a kid home from the game until 11 or 12 on a school about we cool the jets and wait from some warm summer nights.

Nate said...

The fact that Tyler Clippard is Exhibit B in your "exciting young players" list also says quite a bit. Strasburg and Storen are probably going to be up this summer, and that will be great. Beyond that though, the cupboard is pretty much bare for the near future.

Jenn Jenson said...

As one of the few in attendance, I agree it was a satisfying win, both because of the newer contributors, and because I'm a sucker for game-winning RBIs by Wil Nieves. After the last couple of years, I might go so far as to say that every win is satisfying.

Like you, I'm not interested in trashing the Nationals or fair-weather local sports fans. At the same time, I continue to hope that Stan and/or the Lerners will step up personally to say they've rededicated themselves to building the local fan base and bringing our friends and neighbors out to the ballpark.

Anonymous said...

Looks like we'll be seeing Luis Atilano in his major league debut instead of Marquis. Next Thompson for Olsen I'd wager?

Will said...

Disappointing, but the crowds will come if the Nationals make winning a more consistent habit.

D.C. has a lot of transplants ready to jump on the next local bandwagon -- look at the Capitals, who were bottom five in NHL attendance just two years ago.

Morie said...

The weather may have had a bit to do with it, but a sizable portion of the region, myself included, was glued to hockey, and will be for as long as the playoff run lasts. I should note that I am a bigger hockey fan than baseball, but I usually go to my fair share of games on South Capitol Street each summer. Hockey is a fast-paced, exciting sport, and the Caps are far and away the most exciting team in the league. If the Nats keep playing decently the fans will turn out once hockey season is over, but until then the fact remains that a mostly solid 15 game start to a 162-game season doesn't make Ovie, Nicky, and Varly any less amazing to watch.

Anonymous said...

Mark what does the front office have to say about all of this? ...I am still waiting for my call back on my complaints about the whole mess on opening day....Does Stan or Mark Lerner really care?

I saw Mark Lerner was there the last few days is he happy ?

Unknown said...

Maybe someone down in the Executive Offices on South Cap could actually start promoting the team on local radio and television beyond 1500 AM and MASN.

JayB said...


We knew this was coming and it is not the Fan bases fault. It is 100% Stan and Mark and Ted Lerner who put the worst baseball I have ever seen in 40 years on the field not once but twice in a row. They did not care to improve the product and they cared more about finding a playmate for Mark (leather pants) then building a fan base. It will take years to fix the damage done in 2008 and 2009.

Anonymous said...

At least it looks like our starting pitching will be improving with Marquis going on the DL. Just hang in there Nats, until we get more pitching help. Half our SPs, including Lannan need to go.

Kevin said...

there is no sugar-coating this with excuses like weather, competition with the caps game, etc. Those simply explain why we can now say with certainty that the season ticket base is probably between 10-11,000 (a nearly 50% decline from year 1 in DC if I recall).

To be completely fair, the Lerners/StanK are NOT getting the attendance they deserve. After the way they have treated us fans over the past 3 years, they DESERVE attendance of more like 5,000.

The team has been exciting to watch, but I'm watching at home. Until Stan and the Lerners stop treating us like 2nd rate citizens, I don't intend on spending any of my money at the ballpark.

bdrube said...

I know it isn't good for the Nats' bottom line, but I thoroughly ENJOYED being one of the few in attendance last night. I commented to my wife how hardly anyone could be seen arriving after the first inning when normally the keep filing in until around the fifth. Hardly anyone left before the final out and they made lots of noise at the right times. There was also hardly a Red Sox hat in sight.

It is refreshing attending a game with just your fellow baseball fans and no nitwits yapping on their cellphones the whole game. It's the difference between real baseball fans and the annoying idiots who come out to the game in the absence of anything else to do.

Jeeves said...

Interesting that Mock, of the six starting pitchers so far, has the second best era and he was terrible. Only four pitchers have an era under five (O.K. Burnett is 491). Yet the Nats are hanging in there. Impressive!

Scott said...

The empty stadium sucks, but I think that's just an indication that ticket prices are too high relevant to the 'product' thats being offered us. Are we much better than the Orioles? See how far a hundred bucks gets you in Camden Yards.

I've actually noticed something different outside the stadium. A few bars are showing more games (sadly in VA) and I'm seeing more gear out and about. I think people are interested... Just not showing up.

And yet. It's still just an over priced 'product' when really a product isn't something a fan base gets behind overnight, or even over a series of seasons. Fans get behind a team... And for the past few seasons that's not what Kasten and Co.have provided

NeedaNewNick said...

Tampaxing about attendance is a media pastime, but it really doesn't mean much when payroll's already low and the lease goes for another 27 years.

8 of 15 games last night were below 20k, the big division showdown between the Phillies and Atlanta pulled in just 21k. Also, per the comment about ticket prices, check out Nats Park pricing to OPACY or someplace like Miller Park. Lerners clearly getting more ticket revenue per fan than many other teams.

Mark, I really like your site. But this is the sort of thing that the dead tree media tries to turn into a story to create some reader emotion, even though it's unlikely to change anything.

sm13 said...

I was there las night and kept thinking about how loud that stadium could have been in the ninth inning. The Nats players deserve better -- they are putting out maximum effort, now the organization needs to join them. A couple of suggestons for Stan Kasten and Mark Lerner: invest in team stores in conspicuous downtown and mall locations (more folks wearing Nats hats and gear will create more buzz and encourage spur of the moment advance ticket sales); hold regular events in downtown DC (like the O's used to do in Farragut Square); invest in TV & radio & billboard advertising (no business can thrive without establishing a strong brand name).

None of these ideas are original -- they've all been used successfully by other sports franchises.

Go Nats!!

Natsochist said...

I agree with Scott's point about seeing more and more Nats gear around (in MD for me). But for a lot of people, there are too many reasons to say "Eh, I'll see it in person tomorrow night."

Exhibit A: Taking Metro to the game? Prices for a ticket just rose, it's had more accidents (and delays) in the last year than (I believe) any other point in its history, and odds are you'll be getting back extremely late -- especially if you live at the end of one of the lines.

Exhibit B: Ticket prices really aren't that bad, especially if you can get one of those 400 $5 tickets that Stan was so proud of on Opening Day. But then again, you can watch from home for free, and that's a much better view than the upper deck, especially if you're not sure whether you'll make the game on time.

Exhibit C: Extra costs. If you drive, there's parking. Unless you bring food and water, there're refreshments to buy. And THAT is where you find the real price gouging. You'll see the same product, like a Nats Dog, advertised for $4.50 in some places and $6.50 in others. The prices are criminal and the discrepancies are moronic. (ProTip: A hot dog shouldn't cost as much as a footlong sub or a full meal from other eateries. It's PART of a meal.)

I love this team and I love attending games. But until I get some more spending money, I'll sadly have to enjoy most of the games on MASN and am1500 / am820.

Sal said...

As a season ticket holder I agree, it's a shame that the ballpark seemed to have only about 5,000 people. But to play the other side of the fence, it rained all day that scared a bunch of folks away, it was cold and the Caps were playing. One thing of concern, they are only annoucing 11,00 at these games which means the season ticket base has eroded from 17,000 to about 10,000

Anonymous said...

Great article Mark. Attendance bottom line: Better weather; conflict with Caps games; more of the same exciting play and people will show up. Like Stan says, "we deserve the attendance we get". It is gonna change, if the Nats keep playing never quit no matter the score exciting baseball.

Anonymous said...

C'mon people. This was not a bashing of people for not showing up, it was analysis and commentary...just like the title says it will be.

For a baseball fan and Nats fan, it is disappointing to have so few fans in attendance. Scrappy ball is great entertainment.

We all know the problems with the front office and the past two years. Constant repetition of the issues isn't going to change them. Try looking forward and celebrating what this team is doing.

Pat said...

Check this out:
The Nats are ranked 25th out of 30 teams in total attendance so far this season. Not bad for the worst team in baseball the past two years.

Anonymous said... more Nats Express, Metro delays, $8 for a small beer, having to listen to Clint, expensive tickets, an upper deck that's like watching from a skyscraper, no convenient parking, the least courteous cell-phone yapping fans in baseball, bombardment with ads at every possible moment, the Opening Day fiasco without a proper response from the team.... Nope, I can't guess why people aren't showing up, either.

Andrew said...

Looks like lousy weather this weekend too when the Dodgers come to town.

Anonymous said...

I live in Richmond and have watched 11 out of the 15 games so far on MASN, watched 12 if you count me being in attendance for Opening Day. I love this team, have been going to games since '05 and now I have a large fan base that watches games with me in Richmond.

I work for a marketing company here in Richmond specializing in print, SEO, & signs. The Lerner marketing group has dropped the ball here in VA and Richmond in particular. Do you know how many fans commute to Richmond for games? I come up once a month during the 6 month season and now have to take two car's for all the people that come up with me to watch. The Lerners do ZERO advertising down in this market and have missed a boat they should have tapped into a long time ago b/c until the Flying Squirrels got here for the '10 season, baseball was an after thought in this town. You think of their marketing budget they could invest 5-7% of it to this part of Virginia and offer a weekend specials or even season ticket weekend specials (not just Sunday games) for us down here in Richmond?

According to my buddy who lives in the district the Nats really don’t do too much marketing either, he said the only thing he remembers seeing was their Valpak ad last summer and that he would have used it but the only had to make him buy a mini plan for $80. I know they have $5 & $10 tickets at the stadium, and that is what I normally buy when I go b/c by the time I buy a beer ($7.50, even though now its $5 before 1st pitch!), chicken finger basket ($8.50-$10), souvenir program, yearbook, media guide ($5, $10, $10), water ($4), etc it all ads up to around $25 at the park not counting my parking and gas from Richmond to DC which is almost a full tank both ways.

I do think they have missed the boat in “Painting the Town Red” with merchandise sales. I for one only own a t-shirt jersey, polo, official game jacket, and my four hats. All of my clothing items I bought at Marshall’s here in Richmond and all of my hats at Lids. The only merchandise I have bought at the park are my publications.

I’m not trying to be negative here with this post. I like everyone else replying to this thread want this team to succeed and don’t want to be laughed at when I say I’m a Nats fan anymore. To the Lerners to make money you have to invest money, spend another $25 million on player salaries and marketing and I think you will see higher numbers at the turnstiles even on cold weekday April games.


JOHN B said...

There are plenty of baseball fans in D.C., but half of them root for other teams as demonstrated on Opening Day.

The Nats themselves need to step up their marketing efforts.

They know which opponents draw well. Does anyone think the crowds for the Dodgers will only be 11,000?

For the games where there is little interest, the Nats might want to just give those tickets away to the young people of the District and suburbs.

The team needs to develop a fan base and that is one way to do it.

Michael W. Tenleytown said...

Hockey was on; I was flipping to the Nationals during intermissions and was able to catch the 8th and 9th innings. I also have a 20 month old and a pregnant wife so going to a game on Weds night in April - ain't happening. However, I am a former season ticket holder and it was the Lerner's complete lack of respect for the baseball fans of D.C. that drove me to give up my plan. Also, where is the World Championship Banner? That pathetic little pennant over the scoreboard underscores this lack of respect for D.C. and its fans. The Lerner's have completely botched making a historical connection among this team and the Senators incarnations of old.

Arlington BigFish said...

As the (suburban) father of a teen-age girl who's rapidly becoming a Nats-fanatic, I second part of NattyLite's analysis. Last night's game was part of our 20-game package, but we had to cancel plans to attend at the last minute because she had too much homework. Wait until school's out (& the Caps win the Stanley) before we start complaining too much. Summer nights at the ballpark with our kids have a lot of appeal to us folks in the 'burbs.

Anonymous said...

Why aren't people coming. It is not ticket prices, they are actually reasonable except for the home plate area tickets. It is not the product on the field, we have vastly improved there. It is not concession prices, deals can be has, sure beer is expensive but the food is very reasonable for what you get. It is not that local radio talks Redskins year round.

The bottom line is is who the opponent is! Since 2005 we know the only time the Nats draw is versus the Phillies, Mets, Cubs and Orioles. I suspect we will see decent crowds for the Dodgers series but not on the level of the teams mentioned above but when the Rockies, Padres and Astros come to town it will be Cricketville versus NatsTown.

Pete said...

Yeah the game-day experience could definitely be improved. Despite all the food options, none of it is really that good...nothing approaches the hot BBQ sandwiches at Camden. Also, the damned PA announcer drives me crazy. Nobody cares if "WILLIE HAARRRRRRRRRRRRIIIIIIIISSSSS" is up to bat if the Nats are down 10-0 in the 7th inning. Enough of that. Also, does anyone give a rats a$$ about the Presidents race? Very played out. To be fair, I like the red loft and the ease with which you can walk around the park, sip a brew and still watch the game. I also like it that its easy to get cheap tickets.

natsfan1a said...

I was watching, but it was on tv, as is typical with weeknight games for this suburban fan (and as has been typical from day one, in 2005). I'm not into hockey, so I watched the whole game. BTW, Morgan's rundown in the 7th was one of the funniest I've ever seen.

As others have noted, it's early in the season, the weather is cold, and the kids are still in school. It's not an opponent that draws well, gas and Metro prices are up (not to mention the delays on the latter), and, hey, isn't there some teensy issue with the economy or something? :-)

Anonymous said...

Kyle from Richmond and others are on the mark. Lerners have no clue how to run a marketing organization. Stan thinks marketing is calling Philly fans.

It is like watching an Olympic figure skating champion try to play baseball. He or she is a successful athlete, but that does not mean they know anything about baseball.

That is the case with the Lerners who are successful construction guys that focus on keeping costs down and squeezing a contract. They see the marketing budget as an expense, rather than an investment in the business.

Softball Girl said...

This is merely reaping what 08 & 09 sewed. It's not a reflection of this year's team, but last year's.

And the Lerners did stick it to fans the first couple of years in the new stadium too. A lot of people remember the $40 parking lots, metro crowds, strict seating policy, lack of ticket exchanges, etc.

All of that's changed this year. I'm a 20-gamer too, and was there last night because I was able to swap tix for a future game I couldn't go to. I spent the majority of the game in much better seats than what I paid for because the ushers have eased up. I bought all my food & drink with some of the $100 worth of 'nats bucks' I was bribed with for renewing my plan early. And I managed to subsidize the cost of HALF my plan simply by selling my opening day tickets at 10x face value.

Except for the outrageous concession costs (did I mention you can bring your own food in now? Didn't used to be able to.) and the ability to walk around most every section of the entire stadium, it's better than the carefree days in RFK. AND we have a better team.

So consider me a satisfied Nats fan. Last night's game was awesome. And I too hope we don't regress to the mean before 37 shows up. Speaking of which, I imagine the attendance for THAT game will be substantial.

Dave said...

@Pat at 9:06 AM: "The Nats are ranked 25th out of 30 teams in total attendance so far this season. Not bad for the worst team in baseball the past two years."

Exactly. Everybody needs to just relax. It will take extended winning, with good weather, school being out, and no other local team in the playoffs, to get attendance up.

As I just posted over at NJ, I have lots of elbow room around me when I go. I'll be going on Saturday for the third game in eight days. I don't mind being able to spread out when I'm there, and I don't mind being among the elite at the stadium.

When the team is good for a long time, not just for three weeks, people will come back. In the meantime, I agree with others that this kind of hyperventilating is something the mainstream media likes to do, but I think it's basically irrelevant. (No knock on Mark Z. here; I don't consider him part of MSM now.)

Dave said...

@Pete at 10:13 AM: I am absolutely sick to death of that idiotic president's race--and particularly the apotheosis of the losing "president" Teddy. The joke was old and tired two years ago.

They need to lay that one to rest. I'm tired of hearing everybody cheer for a loser. Stupid.

natsfan1a said...

You've always been able to bring your own food, and water, into the park. (At least, I've never had a problem doing so, either at RFK or Nats Park.)

natsfan1a said...

Agree re. the presidents race. It's run its course, as it were, in particular the idea of Teddy the loser as representative of the team. Dibble wants to run as Teddy and win it. Make it happen, Nats. :-)

Anonymous said...

You know what? I really love the Nats, but I don't like night games in April at all. As I watch highlights around MLB on ESPN, I think a LOT of people agree with me. LOTS of stadiums are empty now.

As people write in on this topic, I would ask them to consider the magnitude of the change in consumer behavior that is desired by the Nats. Tens and tens of thousands of consumers, the vast majority who live a full commute from Nats Park, are being asked to radically change their family's lifestyle patterns to attend Nats games. From a consumer behavior standpoint, this is a HUGE challenge.

My neighbor works as a GS-er at the Dept of Labor and is a big fan. He commutes to work/DC from Burke. For a weeknight April game (his wife works as a kindergarten aide and he's got two girls in elementary school) he's looking at a day where he drives to DC in the morning, drives to Burke after work to pick up the family, drives back to DC, then back home at 10:30 p.m. after the game. If his wife grabs the girls and drives in, they pay to park two cars, or maybe she parks at Pentagon City and takes the Metro the rest of the way--which makes for a drag on the way home, having to got BACK to Pentagon City to get the second car. His daughters will probably miss a soccer practice or Girl Scout meeting, and his wife starts reminding him in the 8th inning that she's got to get to school early the next day to work on lesson plans with her boss.

The first year, he got a 41 game plan and 4 tickets and went to 30 games. Then as time went by and the team became worse and worse over the years, it became a 20 game plan for two tickets, now a 10 game plan or even no plan and just walk-up. This family goes to no April weeknight games at all anymore.

MBA students out there--explain to me how this consumer behavior is changed back to 2005 levels for families in Fairfax, Arlington, Alexandria, Prince William, Loudon, PG and Montgomery and Howard and Anne Arundel counties.

Anonymous said...

DC is an event town. We'll show up a big events, but the day to day of a losing or mediocre team...not so much. I'm a baseball fan. I love going to games, and have already gone to four games this year. But it's hard to literally give away tickets to co-workers when I can't come to the game. However, winning solves everything. It means that a home game gets covered on page one of the Post sports section, not page D-8 like today. It means the sports talk stations get frequent calls about the Nats and not about the top ten sinus condition of possible Skins draft picks. Winning creates the buzz and makes the game an event. Then, the complaint will be how hard it is to get tickets.

CoverageisLacking said...

It's odd how people focus on factors that apply to every single team in MLB to excuse poor early-season attendance. It's early in the season in every MLB city. Kids are still in school in every MLB city. Many MLB cities, with much stronger hockey traditions than DC, have hockey teams in the playoffs. Basketball teams too. Yet almost every other MLB team is outdrawing the Nats.

Attendance is bad, pure and simple. Whether you care about that, or whether you think it matters, is a different question.

Anonymous said...

The lack of affordable parking and the lame excuse for a subway system have turned getting to and from a Nats game into a long tiresome affair. Try taking Metro when there are 40 minute delays on the Red Line due to track work. If you live at the end of the line you will get home at 11:30 on Metro. If I had kids I would not even attempt to try Metro with the pushing and waiting at the Navy Yard station. This all adds up to more reasons to stay home and watch on MASN.

Wally said...

I expect attendance to bad the whole year. I think that it is pretty well established that in areas without a very diehard core fan base (like Cubs or Red Sox), the majority of attendees are more casual fans and attendance lags winning. A decent 15 game stretch doesn't turn that around; they need to perform over the entire year, and then add to the buzz in the offseason. Then attendance will start to take a step change.

And for what it is worth, I agree with those bloggers that the Lerners are now reaping what they sowed for the first few years of ownership.

Section 222 said...

Let's home that Stan and the Lerners read this post and the comments. They could really learn something. As JJenson notes, we're still waiting for an apology for the opening day fiasco and a commitment to the local fanbase. Cancellation of Nats Express was a mistake. There are fewer food options (especially in the upper decks). Teddy needs to win already. And Clint is still employed. But otherwise, it really is fun out there and if the team keeps playing well (or even half-decently), attendance will undoubtedly increase in the summer months. I look forward to the day when we're in a pennant race and people are begging me for my season tickets that I've had since day one. But I fear I'll be even more old and gray than I am now.

Andrew said...

The attendence will be great for Strasburg starts and the summer months will be good. I expect if they keep playing .500 ball for attendence to be better than last year.

Anonymous said...

I want to respond the point made by CoverageIsLacking.

The reason, earlier, I expressed the problem terms of consumer behavior, is that the Nats, unlike any other team in baseball, are trying to shape consumer behavior for a NEW product in a NEW market.

From a marketing perspective, comparing Nats' attendance to other teams is like comparing the performance of a long-standing, popular product in a region or city, which is suddenly introduced to a new geographic market. Unlike most new products (soap, soda, fast food), the MLB product requires extensive, time-consuming, and expensive changes in consumer behavior.

I think the Nats have drawn over 10 million since they came to DC. Not one of those fans has any memory of the team's glory days in the 70s or 80s or 90s. Not one of them attended a game to celebrate a special occasion for those lost decades. Not one of them has had Nats season tickets in their family for 30 years. And 100 percent of them, repeat 100 percent of those consumers, had long-standing habits of spending ALL their time and money elsewhere before the Nats arrived.

NONE of the consumers like the family I profiled had developed ANY consumer practice of routinely driving to downtown Washington on weeknights during the school year.

So again, I encourage everyone to look at this from the standpoint of changing consumer behavior for a new product in a new market. From a marketing perspective, comparisons with Pittsburgh or Chicaco are interesting, but not useful.

carolync said...

After reading these comments, I wonder how many fans they lost by canceling the shuttle buses from RFK. For me, not having them adds tremendously to the expense and frustration of attending a game.

Farid said...

I remember very clearly sitting in the stands at RFK Stadium in the mid-to-late 60's and feeling as though I was the only person there.

It was a very odd, almost discomforting feeling -- it was like "what is it everyone one else knows about the Senators that I don't know?"

When the PA system crackled with "Please join Robert Merrill in the singing of our National Anthem," the echoes reverberated all through the stadium -- it actually hurt the ears.

Then, towards the end of the game, you'd hear, "Today's attendance is 5,679 -- the Senators thank you!"

I'm in no way suggesting that the Nationals have done anything to warrant larger crowds; rather, I simply wish they were drawing more fans.

Living in Idaho, I haven't had the chance to see a game at the new park, but I have to imagine that it's still a strange feeling, being one of just a few thousand fans cheering on the team.

Meridian said...

Here's a thought for everyone's consideration, especially you MBA students:

For most of its lifetime, professional baseball was NOT a season-ticket based sport. Most sales were single-game, and a hefty percentage of those were walk-up.

This changed only over the last 15-20 years, as smaller ballparks (and the enthusiasm they generated) created scarcity, which in turn led people to buy season or partial-season packages to preserve their ability to attend games.

For fans other than corporations, there is no reason other than scarcity to buy a season ticket. It requires major cash outlay, creates likely conflicts with work/personal schedules, etc.

Could it be that, now that the bloom is off the rose for these new ballparks (and they mostly look alike anyway), that baseball is reverting to the paradigm that was dominant for VIRTUALLY ALL OF ITS EXISTENCE, INCLUDING ITS GOLDEN AGE? Is this reversion being accelerated by (a) the recession, (b) StubHub, and (c) in Washington, several bad seasons coupled with an inept ownership group?


Anonymous said...

It's odd how people focus on factors that apply to every single team in MLB to excuse poor early-season attendance...Yet almost every other MLB team is outdrawing the Nats.

Attendance is poor everywhere this time of year, save for Fenway, Philadelphia, Target Field and the like where they have truly excellent teams and/or brand new ballparks. Just look at the box scores every morning and tell me it's not. And if other teams are outdrawing the Nats, it's not by all that much and should be expected anyway because the team hasn't been good at all the past couple of years. Indeed, even though the Nats have been DFL in the standings the past two years, they are still 5 or 6 from the bottom in attendance. That would have to count as a positive, I'd say. Attendance is not the big issue everyone makes it out to be. As the team continues to improve, so will attendance. And no amount of marketing or front office antics is going to do squat to improve it. It's really that simple.

JayB said...

(c) in Washington, several bad seasons coupled with an inept ownership group! No brainier!

Anonymous said...

The Lerners are still learning. Bowden had a "different" president and an HoF manager that I bet he had to listen to just before 2005. IN other words Bowden was the low man on a major league baseball owned franchise. After 2005, thanks to his connection with Mark Lerner, like Vinny Cerrato, he survived and even thrived.

I think Mike Rizzo is far more competent to both judge major league talent and to put together a winning team (even on a shoestring) than Mssr. Bowden who probably felt too threatened to hire the smart people that Mr. Rizzo has hired.

Its a pretty simple model for any gov'y or ex-gov'y to analyze and understand.

Things have changed. Starting at the management level and now moving down to the players.

Perhaps they could use some better marketing. Unfortunately, they are not in the midst of the Inner Harbor with all if its attractions as was Camden Yards; the tajmahal we Maryland based DC fans paid for. Its basically in Anacostia. At one time quite the beautiful place ... but now undergoing Urban renewal.

People love an underdog. This team and franchise certainly qualifies. Let's see how far Rizzo and company can run with that and how well it moves the turnstiles over time.

CoverageisLacking said...

@anon at 11:56, as I said earlier, whether you care about attendance, or whether you think it matters, is a different question than explaining why attendance is poor. But as for the explanations that have been offered (such as Caps playoffs, school in session, cold weather, etc), I think they are pretty lame. I agree with you about the bottom line explanation: poor results on the field have spawned poor attendance.

@anon at 11:38: if you're right about your premise and explanation (and personally, I don't really think you are) that just highlights the fact that the Lerners had a big marketing job ahead of them when they bought the team, and an opportunity to capitalize on the enthusiasm that existed around the Nats when the team moved to DC. And on those fronts, the Lerners and Kasten squandered completely the goodwill that they had when they came in, and did a horrible job marketing the team right from the start. As a result of their own failures, they have a bigger challenge ahead of them today than they did in 2006. By far.

Anonymous said...

"For fans other than corporations, there is no reason other than scarcity to buy a season ticket. It requires major cash outlay, creates likely conflicts with work/personal schedules, etc."

A winning team will attract more corporations in the Nations Capital. The spotlight is often focused on DC just because it is almost the center of the world at this point. A winning team can feed off of that focus to bring in fans and revenue. I imagine that if Wang does manage to pitch the International Corporate interest in Asia may skyrocket. In some respects DC is bigger than NY and LA.

fischy said...

"At the same time, I continue to hope that Stan and/or the Lerners will step up personally to say they've rededicated themselves to building the local fan base and bringing our friends and neighbors out to the ballpark."

What does this mean? Is this a dig about Opening Day, or do you seriously think the team isn't trying to develop a local fan base? What do you propose they do as part of this re-dedication?

When the Nats have become more consistent winners -- when fans can come out without fear the team will be down 6-0, or 10-0 in the opening innings -- they will have fans. Besides, it's April. If they're playing .500 ball in the summer, they'll have bigger crowds than they've had yet...even when Strasburg isn't pitching.

Anonymous said...

The Caps are on a playoff run and many of the Caps and Nats fans overspill. Last night was Game 3 of a playoff series for the Caps. Not really a representative day to comment on crowds at the park, IMO. I'm guessing that if the Nats were in the World Series, the Caps attendance at a run of the mill October regular season game may suffer as well. See how the crowd is today.

Section 222 said...

Fischy said: "What does this mean? Is this a dig about Opening Day, or do you seriously think the team isn't trying to develop a local fan base? What do you propose they do as part of this re-dedication?"

Yes, it has a lot to do with opening day. StanK and the team apparently thought it was more important to fill the stadium with Phillies fans than to make sure that local fans could attend. What happened was a huge black eye, and a mea culpa rather than pretending there was nothing wrong with what happened, would help. And then, they ought to take some of the advice in the many thoughtful comments here -- bring back the Nats Express, shave something off the concession prices, arrange for a half-decent radio signal for our more than half=decent radio announcers, advertise on stations other than MASN, get a downtown outlet for Nats gear. They should tell people they want to make up for what happened over the past two years both on the field and off, and then they should spend some of their millions to do it.

The Great Unwashed said...

I think it’s fair to say that just about every point people have made about the ballpark attendance and the challenges of bringing their kids to a game on a school night, etc. is valid. But isn’t it great that this is the fodder for discussion instead of everyone bemoaning another horrid start to the season? Take time to enjoy it while it lasts. The Nats are 8-7, despite the worst starting rotation in the majors. Logic says that won’t hold for long unless their pitching woes get straightened out, but the team is playing better baseball and has more talent than in recent years. Yes, they could be better, but that’s a different discussion for a different time. Let’s just enjoy the fact that they are above .500, they are hitting pretty well (except for Dunn), and that so far, Riggleman has the team committing fewer errors, stealing many more bases that Manny would’ve allowed, and they’re not quitting. The last few wins are a prime example of that.

Anonymous said...

And on those fronts, the Lerners and Kasten squandered completely the goodwill that they had when they came in, and did a horrible job marketing the team right from the start.

If they squandered any goodwill, it was not much - because the bloom was already off the rose for this franchise long before they had the chance to do anything with it. Half a million fans dropped off the attendance rolls from 2005 to 2006. The Lerners had nothing to do with that. Another 200,000 bailed from 2006 to 2007 - mostly season ticket holders there, and the biggest part of the blame for that would have to go on the media, who beat the drum of negativity on a so-called "historically bad" team that actually turned out better than the year before. Perhaps the Lerners could have gotten a bit more out of the new stadium bump, but again they had to fight a steady stream of dire media predictions of Armageddon the whole way. No one would argue that the Lerners are perfect owners, but painting them with this "squandered the goodwill" charge is a complete load of BS.

Anonymous said...

3 points--hopefully new and helpful ones:

1. The main private sector industry in the DC area is government contracting. It is (properly) against the law for contractors to take government clients to games. Name me one other MLB market where the main industry cannot give their main client base tickets to games.

2. The Obama Administration's "insourcing" initiative is really hurting contracting firms. Peter Orzsag (sorry about spelling!), Obama's OMB director, said the Administration planned to hire "several hundred thousand" new government employees in the first four years of the Administration (Wash Post, May 2009). "Insourcing" is defined as cutting contract jobs and replacing them with Govt jobs. This is not a political comment at all--just noting the fact that this industry is getting hit hard, and it is cutting back on stuff like sports tickets.

3. For whatever reason, the Nats outreach to the African American community is failing, in terms of ticket sales. Whether this is the Nats' fault, or the simple fact that African Americans don't care about baseball as much as they once did, it is big problem for the Nats. In a city with a residential population of something like 60 or 70 percent African Americans, I'd say they represent less than one percent of fans at most games. You hear stories of the Grays out-drawing the Nats in DC in the 1930s. It is very, very hard to imagine that level of enthusiasm for baseball in the black community nowadays. My message to blacks: you made baseball what it is--please come back to it!

JT said...

OK, OK. A skimpy crowd, yes. But not ONE Nats fan in attendance intentionally barfed on a child! So we got that goin' for us.

Hey, chill. It's a rainy April game, mid Stanley Cup on a night the Caps played. Warm summer nights are coming.

yazzy1956 said...

You might also want to lower that 11,000 estimate on the number of season's ticket holders. As many of you know the Nats are basically giving their full season's ticket holders the equivalent of up to another 41 games under this elaborate "Red Carpet Rewards" point system. So in reality a number of those 11K might actually be season's ticketholders who gave the tickets they got through the bonus program away. I wonder if you can find out Mark if those free tix are actually counted as part of the attendance. In other words do they count fannies in seats or tickets sold as the actual attendance? And are those freebie tickets considered tickets sold?

Section 222 said...

Meridian's point about baseball now being a season ticket-based sport underscores the huge impact that the that poor play of the last few seasons has had on the team's finances. For the sake of argument, let's say there are now 10,000 STHs. That means they start with a guaranteed season paid attendance of only 810,000. Increase the STH base to 25,000 and the annual attendance jumps to a minimum of 2.03 million. Each additional 5,000 STHs means 405,000 more paid tickets purchased. Seems to me that it's a lot easier to make (or keep) 5,000 die hard fans willing to buy season tickets than it is to get 405,000 new bodies out to the park. But you absolutely cannot do it with 100- loss teams and penny wise, pound foolish decisions on ballpark atmosphere.

Section 222 said...

I've always been under the impression that the announced attendance is the paid attendance. So the RCR and other freebie tickets are not counted. Nor does it matter if there were only 5,000 people actually in the park because many STHs stayed home.

Anonymous said...

A lot of bad news here regarding the Caps, but here's another bit of bad news:

The Caps hurt the Nats' attendance any week both teams are home, EVEN IF THEY DON'T PLAY ON THE SAME NIGHTS.

A family with tickets to the Caps on Mon and Fri and the Nats on Tues and Thurs of a given week are NOT going to go to all four games. Their house would fall apart--anyone with a family knows this.

Given this choice--a screaming arena full of Caps fans and an almost-certain win, versus a chilly April night outdoors to watch the losingest team in baseball in the last two years--people are going to the two Caps games and leaving the Nats tickets on the kitchen table.

The Caps hurt the Nats any week both teams are home,even when they don't play on the same dates.

CoverageisLacking said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
CoverageisLacking said...

"The Caps hurt the Nats any week both teams are home,even when they don't play on the same dates."

DC is not the only 4-sport town in the country. There are plenty of others (and these others actually discovered more than 2 years ago that their hockey team existed). Their baseball teams draw fine.

Assuming that there is overlap among the game-goers in a manner that materially hurts attendance numbers is incredibly simplistic. The reasons for the Nats' poor attendance, plain and simple, are that the team stinks, and the organization has otherwise done a horrible job marketing the team. If the team was good, coupled with a good marketing effort and gameday experience, then the Caps and Wizards could both be in the playoffs and the Nats would nonetheless draw extremely well. There are plenty of sports fans in DC to support good teams, even when they are playing at the same time.

Anonymous said...

The reasons for the Nats' poor attendance, plain and simple, are that the team stinks, and the organization has otherwise done a horrible job marketing the team.

Name one pro team in any sport that stinks but yet its ownership has been able to market it so as to achieve long-term high attendance numbers in spite of that. The reason for the Nats poor attendance is that the team has stunk, plain and simple. What the organization has or has not done has had no noticeable effect on the attendance at all.

CoverageisLacking said...

"The reason for the Nats poor attendance is that the team has stunk, plain and simple. What the organization has or has not done has had no noticeable effect on the attendance at all."

Incorrect. There are many, many, examples of season ticket holders who have canceled their plans because of what they perceived to be poor treatment by the organization, and because of dissatisfaction with the gameday ballpark experience. Many others indicated a similar intention to cancel after the Opening Day Philly fiasco. These decisions were not a consequence of the team's play on the field. I have had personal conversations with many such people, along with the countless comments along these lines that we see on this and other blogs and message boards.

And I can easily name a pro team that fits your example to a "T"--the New York Rangers. That was without even thinking about it. I'm sure I could come up with others if I gave it some thought. You seem to have a very fatalistic view of things, (not)anon: the Lerners did nothing to squander goodwill, they have no control over attendance, etc. Stan may share your view, but that doesn't validate it.

Anonymous said...

Anon 3:15 wrote:

"Name one pro team in any sport that stinks but yet its ownership has been able to market it so as to achieve long-term high attendance numbers in spite of that."

This question kind of shocked me, honestly. Isn't "The Washington Redskins" that team?

Anonymous said...

Anon 3:15 wrote: "Name one pro team in any sport that stinks but yet its ownership has been able to market it so as to achieve long-term high attendance numbers in spite of that."

Doesn't that describe the Washington Redskins?

Tcostant said...

As I read these comments, I honestly wonder if D.C. getting the team instead of Nortern Virginia actual has hurt attendance. I saw a survey resently (can't remember where) that stated double (yes twice as many on a percentage basis) the amount of Northern Virginia residents considered the Nats their favorite local team ve D.C. Residents.

Off the top of my head, something like 14% vs. 7%.

I think a large percentage of the fan base attending games comes from VA; I sure know I would attend a lot more weekday games if the team was at Dulles rather then the Navy Yard.

Just a thought.

Anonymous said...

Tcostant makes an excellent point regarding consumer behavior. We all remember the 4 P's of marketing (Product, Promotion, Price, and Place). (Some add a 5th P, but 4 will do for this example.)

He is making the marketer's point regarding the importance of PLACE in marketing. While some bloggers on this (extremely high quality) discussion want to say we're 26th of 30 in attendance and there's NO excuse for it because ALL the other cities have the same dynamics (4 sports teams, etc) we do, Tcostant is making the superior counterpoint:

Study after study shows that the DC area is NOT like other MLB cities in terms of commuting times and distances. It is FAR worse. The dad who lives in Stafford and works in McLean or Arlington or Falls Church must make a MONSTER commute to get to work, a MONSTER commute to go home and get the family for a game, a MONSTER commute back into DC for the game itself, and then a long (but not monstrous) commute from Nats Park at 10:30 that night.

It's not realistic to expect people with families to do this very often.

Dave said...

@CoverageisLacking: "DC is not the only 4-sport town in the country. There are plenty of others (and these others actually discovered more than 2 years ago that their hockey team existed). Their baseball teams draw fine."

CiL, you keep saying this as if Washington's baseball situation is comparable to that of other four-sport towns. Why are you still making this argument?

DC was without baseball for one entire generation, 33 years. The people who remember baseball in this town are aging Baby Boomers or older. NOBODY who was born later than about 1965 can possibly have a connection to DC's baseball past. These people have no sense of supporting a DC baseball team, and the team given them to support so far has been really bad.

This is essentially different from the experience in other four-sport towns, such as Philadelphia, where there has been a continuous tradition of the sport over decades. You simply cannot compare apples and oranges.

I grant that the Kasten-Lerner group have done a crappy and insulting job of developing the market here, but I truly do not think that has very much to do with this week's atrocious attendance. Several years of losing baseball have caused that. Not EVEN idiotic Presidents' Races or loudmouthed PA announcers are basically at fault here. Just bad baseball.

The quality of baseball seems to be changing, and the growth in attendance will follow, almost as certainly as day follows night.

@Tcostant, I live in Northern Virginia. I work close to where a Dulles ballpark would have been built. I am extremely glad the ballpark was not built there, and I like going into DC to the games. It's an urban experience. A ballpark in the Dulles area would have made my daily commute a more miserable thing than it already is. Northern Virginians don't mind going into town for cultural events, and baseball is a cultural event.

Really. Everybody needs to relax. This thread looks like some of the breathless and panicked attendance threads from the Ballpark Guys forum back before the stadium opened.

Arlington BigFish said...

The Nats are, for all intents & purposes, a NEW product, as several people have pointed out. It's going to take many years for us to get back in the groove after 33 years in the wilderness (to mix metaphors). The various experiences we're having at the stadium are still at a BASEBALL PARK. I'll keep coming to see the games, & I'll keep buying my 20-game package because it's BASEBALL.

Arlington BigFish said...

Dave, you said exactly what I was trying to say (& said it while I was typing).

yazzy1956 said...

One other reason why the Nats don't draw is that it is a wasteland around the ballpark. There are no bars or restaurants within walking distance of Nats Park! When it comes to eating and drinking you are at the mercy of the Lerners who can charge exorbinant prices because they have no competition. With the commercial real estate market in the shape it is, it will take years before there is any nightlife in the Nats Park neighborhood like the development we saw in Chinatown after the Verizon Center was built. At least part of the attraction of going to a Caps game is to get there early and go to dinner with your kids or hang out with friends at a bar after the game. At a Nats game you walk from your car or Metro, go to the game, and walk back to your car or the Metro. There is nothing else to draw you to the neighborhood other than an awful team.

Tcostant said...

Thanks 4:20PM

One other point I will make. Like I read on these posts, I too had a 20 game package the first year. I hated that it was just 20 randon games and not some kind of Sunday only plan or the like (so if the team was in towm, you knew you had a game). Buy Year 2, I found a full season ticket group and took 20 games. Then I went down to 10 games. Now this year I was down to taken 5 games in the season ticket group, but will go to a few others too. Part of that is I try to get weekend games, because I live/work in Northern VA. Part of it, is now my son is over three and needs a ticket. But bottom line, I less and less have the desire to go to D.C. (during the week) despite my moto being a "a bad day at the ballpark, is better than a good day at work".

I really believe, besides being beaten down with a bad product; than more and more people think twice before make the trip to D.C.

My Two cents...

Dave said...

@yazzy1956, you must not have paid attention to the area around Verizon Center at the time the arena was built, and several years afterward. It did not instantly become the chi-chi Penn Quarter place it is now. That took about 10 years or so.

If I am not mistaken, the near-Southeast area around Nats Park actually has a head start on what the Penn Quarter neighborhood was like when the Phone Booth opened, as far as development is concerned.

JustSaying said...

Cleveland really had the right idea, content the first year in a new ballpark. The Lerners should have spent, a lot more, that first year at Nats Park and made it a great, winning experience. Cleveland road that to consecutive years of sellouts.

They really missed the boat that first year.

Anonymous said...

Mark--I don't know if you're still reviewing this thread. I do have one more thought though if you're still reading. Are you?

Mark Zuckerman said...

Anon: Yes, I still read the comments posted on this thread. So fire away...

yazzy1956 said...

Dave, I have had Caps season's tickets on and off since the year Verizon opened. I know what the neighborhood looked like and how long it took for the area to blossom. But Verizon wasn't built in the middle of the worst recession in most of our lifetimes. That was my point. It will take longer for the area around Nats Park to develop because there's a glut of commercial real estate. And the irony is that the Lerners own a lot of the properties around the ballpark that are vacant.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Mark--this will be my last post on this thread. I don't know if there's any way for you to summarize/share this with Nats management, but I think it would be a good idea to do so.

I would encourage the front office to address the Opening Day disaster one last time. I know it sounds like old news, but I believe that damage was done that day which is FAR from undone. Here's what I mean:

In "The Tipping Point," Malcolm Gladwell presents a brilliant model for how and why things catch on (be they Hush Puppies shoes, reductions in crime, or the response of the colonists to the Midnight Ride of Paul Revere.) It is a fascinating book, and #1 New York Times bestseller.

The main thesis of the book has enormous implications for the Nationals. The thesis is that key groups of influencers (nicknamed Mavens, Connectors and Salesmen) have VASTLY disproportionate impact on the public's impression of a given thing or product. Though their numbers are small, they have a gigantic impact on consumer behavior in the marketplace.

This is where the Nats, and Opening Day, come together. ALL the Nats influencers were there--the people that talk about the Nats at work, gather groups of neighbors to come to Nats games, teach baseball in their communities, and follow every aspect of the team religiously. They were ALL at Opening Day--they had faked sick from work, got their kids out of school, invited out-of-state family members to their homes so they could all go together. And their EXPECTATION was that all the good tidings and good feelings from the Nats Caravan and NatsFest and all the other stuff would culminate at the Opener. Their expectation, importantly, was NOT that the Nats would win, but that all the things they love about Nats and baseball would come back into their lives again at the Opener.

Instead, they were embarrassed, shouted down, humiliated, and in most cases felt betrayed by their own front office, all on the day many of them mark as the most important day of the entire year. Then they feel as if they got a pro forma, arrogant response from Nats management. In ONE AFTERNOON, many of these key influencers had moved from 10s on the enthusiasm scale, to 3s, 4s, or even 0s. This group is vital to the Tipping Point of overall community response to the team, because of their influence, network, and reach. There have been MANY calls for improved spending on Nats' marketing on this thread. My warning is that no amount of money spent on marketing can offset the damage done by insulting all your best customers. (Local readers will remember that when Hechinger's went bankrupt due to ignoring their customers in the stores, they still had a whopping advertising budget. Didn't matter.)

I recommend the team address the issue again, say they're sorry and mean it, and start listening to these key Nats influencers in the future.

Dave said...

@Anon 3:23 PM, I wish you would send a letter to Stan Kasten himself, saying exactly what you just said. Your argument is eloquent and sound, and he needs to hear it.

Mr. NATural said...


This item has fallen way off your screen I guess, but I'm coming in to this late to add a couple of points:

- The Nats had around 25K tonight, in perfect weather, on a Friday night, against an iconic team (LA). I think if the team paid attention to a lot of the stuff that's been posted here, they would've had 35K tonight instead.

- Local TV is KILLING the Nats. During spring training they would routinely report Red Sox or Yankees results or exciting March Redskins news and skip the Nats completely.

- Tonight I surfed channels 4, 7, and 9. Here's the order of their sports coverage, with comments:

All covered Caps, Skins draft, then Nats win over LA. I understand the Caps. The Skins coverage of draft picks is ridiculous.

- The channel 4 guy said the Nats were playing in LA.

- The channel 7 guy gave a big announcement about the UM spring game and said he would personally be there.

None of the stations mentioned LA plays here tomorrow at 1pm.

No one can tell me the Lerners and Kasten and company can't sit down with these station and ask them for fair coverage of our baseball team.

Obed Marsh said...

After the opening day fiasco and two consecutive 100 loss plus seasons and the front office is getting the attendance they deserve.

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