Don Malais expected to log onto his computer at midnight, buy a 20-game package of tickets for the Washington Nationals, and be in bed by 12:30. He was up until 2 in the morning. Jim Ilaria went to sleep right around 2, woke up early, and went back at it. Nick Bona finally got his seats at 4 a.m.
The Nationals began selling partial season ticket plans, in packages of 41 and 20 games, at 12:01 a.m. yesterday, and several fans reported a variety of delays. Some said they were logged off the system entirely. Others logged off themselves after long delays. Still others wondered whether they wasted early morning hours trying to buy tickets when they could have gotten the same seats more easily after getting up in the morning.
Dave Scarborough, the executive vice president for technology at Ticketmaster, said the company's software failed to efficiently handle the requests because it is "not quite as sophisticated" as it needs to be. The software for single ticket sales, for example, puts buyers in a queue and tells them they have a certain amount of time until they get through, but Ticketmaster had no way to quickly process orders for multi-game plans.
"Most of the time, when you do something like a mini-plan, most of them are on a renewal basis," said Scarborough. "You know who the people are, and there's not a big onslaught that there is with a first-year team. This situation was different."
David Cope, the Nationals' vice president for marketing and sales, said that the team received more than 100 complaints, and would do "whatever it could" to appease angry ticket buyers. Ilaria, for instance, said he had his seats improved after lodging a complaint.
"Did we hear from people? Absolutely," Cope said. "Unfortunately, that comes with the territory when there's that much demand. But we are working on getting back to every person we hear from. If they give us a phone number, we'll call them directly. If they only leave their e-mail, we'll e-mail them back. Have we taken care of every fan that was frustrated or disappointed? Probably not. But we will."
By mid-morning, officials said, traffic on the site had returned to a more reasonable level, and by 5 p.m., the club had sold partial plans to more than 1,500 people -- most of whom bought two or more seats, Cope said. Those new accounts represent more than 1,330 season ticket equivalents, giving the Nationals nearly 19,500 season ticket equivalents -- more than 18,100 full season tickets, plus the new sales.
"We're very pleased with the response," Cope said. "We think the numbers are impressive. It was a stellar day."
The delays yesterday weren't the first problem with Nationals' ticket sales. In November, the team started taking deposits for season tickets a day before it had originally announced.
Partial season ticket plans are available through Sunday only for those fans who had pre-registered their interest on the club's Web site. On Monday, they go on sale to the general public. Single-game tickets won't be available until mid-March. The home opener at RFK Stadium is April 14 against the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Despite what the club considers brisk sales -- the purchases yesterday represent 107,000 seats sold -- the stalls in those first hours created significant anxiety. Malais, frustrated a little before 2 a.m., sent the group of friends with whom he collaborated to buy tickets an e-mail. "No dice, guys," it read. Just after sending the e-mail, he got through and bought his tickets.
Ilaria, from Falls Church, went to bed without tickets, but his wife bought them later in the morning. He said the delays reflect poorly on the club's ability to pull off the team's move from Montreal.
"Coming here, these guys have to have flawless execution," Ilaria said. "My issue is that if these guys can't handle the small details, how are they going to handle the larger ones? It just does not give me a high level of confidence that they're going to pull this off."
Kevin Uhlich, the top assistant to team president Tony Tavares, said before the partial plans went on sale that the team hoped to sell the equivalent of between 3,000 and 4,000 more season tickets, bringing the number to around 22,000. He said the team would like to average 30,000 fans a game.
"I think that's a sound number," Uhlich said. "I wouldn't be surprised if this marketplace delivers more than that."
An average of 30,000 fans over 81 home games would mean between 2.4 million and 2.5 million people come to RFK Stadium, a total that would have ranked 16th out of the 30 major league clubs in 2004. As the Montreal Expos last year, the team drew 748,550 fans -- the only major league club under 1.2 million.
"I want to go to the games," said Malais, who lives on Capitol Hill. "I want to support the team. I'm happy for the opportunity, but it was a bit of a hassle."
Nationals Notes: The team's radio negotiations continued yesterday, with Infinity Broadcasting -- which owns area properties including WJFK -- still the leader. But there were indications that there may be other players, including WTOP, one source said. . . .
The team agreed to terms with two more members of the 40-man roster -- pitcher Gary Majewski and outfielder Tyrell Godwin.