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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."

The team will also put 2 million pocket schedules into the market this week at McDonald's restaurants and through two major beer distributors, which will get them in bars and restaurants. And this week, the team will announce dates for give-away days, when fans will receive such items as visors or six-pack coolers.

The more significant concern, for now, is the condition of the playing surface. The Mets filed a protest of Saturday night's game, saying that the grounds crew did not follow the instructions of the umpiring crew when heavy rains delayed the game in the sixth and eventually caused it to be stopped short in the eighth.

Nationals Manager Frank Robinson was ejected after arguing with the umpires that they should have halted the game. The Nationals, in turn, acknowledged the problem. Tavares said in its haste to begin work on the infield, the grounds crew folded the tarp the wrong way, sending too much water back into the infield.

"Baseball was not designed to be played on ponds," Tavares said.

Andy Dunn, the team's vice president of ballpark operations, said the field drains well enough if the tarp is put on in proper time, and that he has enough staff on the grounds crew -- led by groundskeeper Jimmy Rodgers, who came from the University of Virginia -- to take care of problems. But club officials blamed the umpires for letting too much rain fall before they called for the tarp.

"It's embarrassing for everybody involved," Dunn said. "Jimmy doesn't feel good about it. We don't feel good about it."

But that doesn't go for the crowds. Each morning, Tavares scans box scores from other games around the majors. Saturday night, the Nationals drew 40,913, despite the rain. Tavares smiled.

"Compared with everybody else, [Saturday] night, we had 40,000-plus," Tavares said, "and I looked around league attendances, and I saw as low as 15 to 16 [thousand], even in some good-sized marketplaces."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company