“I absolutely thought we’d see more [fans] this week,” shortstop Ian Desmond said. “I thought when we were in first place, playing great baseball early on, they’d start coming out. I thought after the offseason acquisitions that people would start coming out. It’s obviously something we have to work on as an organization. We’ve got to play better as players and continue to show them it’s not a fluke.”
By some other measures, the Nationals are already trending upward. Bill Nielsen, the vice president of sales for Scarborough Sports Marketing, which tracks industry trends, said that in 2006 — with data from the previous season — 32 percent of the Washington area’s 4.8 million residents had either attended, watched or listened to a Nationals game. That number bottomed out at 26 percent in 2007. The firm’s latest research, which doesn’t include the 2012 season, has the figure at 33 percent. In 2006, 14 percent of the market attended at least one Nationals game. Now, that figure is at 18 percent.
“It’s kind of what you would expect: an initial splash, then a drop-off,” Nielsen said. “But there has been a consistent build back up.”
Last August, with the Phillies in town, Feffer bristled as boos rained down on the home team and Philadelphia hats and jerseys dominated the crowd. Over the winter, the Nationals — whose former president, Stan Kasten, once wooed Philadelphia fans in an effort to boost attendance — began to block sales to buyers with Philadelphia-area zip codes.
“We had to have a different day here at Nationals Park,” Feffer said.
Still, Philadelphia fans are planning to come. “We kind of laugh at it,” said Kyle Scott, the founder and editor of the Philadelphia sports blog “Crossing Broad” who has organized a bus trip, with close to 200 fans, for Sunday night’s game. “We’re going to come down there and take over the park one way or another. They’re not going to stop us.”
The Nationals, and their fans, seem hopeful — and realistic — about what to expect this weekend.
“I really hope this weekend we’ll have more of our fans than Philly fans for the first time ever,” said third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, the team’s longest-tenured player.
“I think people are excited about it for sure,” said Chris Howdeshell, a 29-year-old Fairfax resident who has been to four games this season. “It’s just getting down there on weeknights can be tough. But I think if they keep this up, there’s going to be a huge surge this summer.”
Feffer said he expects more than 30,000 fans for Friday night’s game, and that Saturday’s game will likely sell out. Nielsen, the sports marketing expert, said that while the idea of blocking groups from buying tickets “almost flies against everything you’d think was right,” he can understand the Nationals’ perspective.
“From a brand standpoint, and trying to energize the fan base, it’s a good idea,” he said. “But is it going to work?”
That question will begin to be answered Friday night, when Stephen Strasburg takes the mound with Bryce Harper behind him. Whether they are cheered or booed will be the latest indication of what inroads the Nationals — the first-place Nationals — have made in Washington.