For Nats, What Counts Is Turnstiles

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 2, 2005

Some nights, the seats along the left field line at RFK Stadium bounce up and down. The fans whoop and holler. Baseball is back in Washington, and all seems right about the situation.

On other nights, though, far fewer seats are filled. There is no bouncing. One night last week, it caused an official from an opposing club to look around at banks of empty seats and say, "Is this all that's been here every night?"

Last night, the Washington Nationals reached another self-evaluation point, one of many to come during the District's first baseball season in 34 years. Nothing -- not winning teams, not division titles -- will serve as a truer indication of baseball's eventual success or failure in Washington than attendance.

Before the season, Nationals President Tony Tavares said he had what he thought was a realistic goal for the season: 2.43 million fans. A pretty specific number, to be sure. But do the math: 2.43 million fans over 81 home dates comes out to 30,000 per night.

In April, the Nationals were just above that number. Through the first 12 games at RFK Stadium -- two homestands -- an average of 30,951 fans saw the Nationals play, a number that ranked 13th of 30 major league teams, but was slightly below the major league average of 31,328 through Saturday. Last night's crowd of 27,333 lowered the RFK average to 30,672. There has been the good -- the home opener, a sellout of 45,596 -- and the not-so good, such as a Tuesday evening matchup with the Philadelphia Phillies that drew 23,332.

"If you look at attendance in April, typically, these are your softer months," Tavares said, "because kids aren't out of school yet, the weather hasn't warmed up yet, you've still got NBA basketball going -- and frankly, it's the first time in many years with the Wizards being highly competitive. I'm not making excuses. I'm just telling you I'm very pleased with our attendance."

A month into the season, with 68 home games to go, the Nationals have done very little to promote their existence. There has been no print ad campaign, nothing on television or the radio. There are no banners strewn through downtown or on Capitol Hill. Club officials said that was partly by design.

"I have a philosophy, which is: It's tough to ballyhoo a funeral," Tavares said. "In the old days, they used to make a car called an Edsel. I don't care how much you tried to sell it, nobody was buying it. I very much believe in peak-on-peak marketing, where you sell people what they want to buy. And this time of year, it's tough to get people that aren't already motivated to come to the game to come to the game."

So, as David Cope, the team's vice president of sales and marketing, said, "We kind of wanted to let the excitement of the first two homestands see where they led us."

The Nationals finished April at 13-11, and spent a considerable amount of time in first place in the National League East, helping the team finish slightly ahead of projections for attendance, Cope said. But even with 2.1 million tickets sold for the season, Cope said the test will come in the next few homestands. The team will begin a nine-game West Coast swing tonight in Los Angeles, and there are only nine more home games in May. But when the team returns for a May 13 date against the Chicago Cubs, fans will have been exposed to a new marketing campaign, Cope and Tavares said.

The team's new slogan -- "Let Yourself Go" -- will be seen and heard in all forms of media, Cope said.

"It tells people to come to the game, to let themselves come out here," Cope said. "But then once you're here, have fun, let loose. We don't want it to feel like stuffy old D.C. -- and it doesn't."

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