Nats' New Owners Hoping Changes Lure Fans to RFK

With fewer people in the stands this season to watch Brian Schneider, left, Ryan Zimmerman and the Nationals, the team will reduce ticket prices and add amenities.
With fewer people in the stands this season to watch Brian Schneider, left, Ryan Zimmerman and the Nationals, the team will reduce ticket prices and add amenities. (By Joel Richardson -- The Washington Post)
By Thomas Heath
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Faced with sluggish attendance and a last-place team, the incoming owners of the Washington Nationals said yesterday they will reduce the price of 2,000 upper-deck seats, some to as low as $3 each, and cut the cost of some refreshments in an effort to attract more fans.

Incoming team president Stan Kasten said fans would begin noticing other changes in and around 44-year-old Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium -- including increased food offerings and a new "Fan Zone" inside the ballpark -- starting with the Nationals' July 21-23 series against the Chicago Cubs. The new ticket prices take effect July 25.

The family of Theodore N. Lerner is paying Major League Baseball $450 million for the Nationals, whose attendance ranks 18th in the league this season at 26,506 per game. The number of people actually in the seats has been fewer because of no-shows. The team has seen its season ticket sales decline 5,000 from last year.

"We hope to do things to enable that [attendance] number to grow significantly over time, and of course the sooner the better," said Kasten, adding he expects the Lerners to take ownership of the franchise before the end of the month. "We want our ballpark full every night, 81 times a year. But we're not going to wait for the new ballpark. We're not going to take anything for granted. That's why it's so important that our first game out of the box, after we get control of the franchise, we show the fans how much attention we are going to be paying to their experience."

Kasten said the Lerners had been contemplating ways to improve the stadium even before they were chosen by baseball as the new owners in early May. The changes have become more urgent as attendance has declined.

The Nationals surpassed expectations after arriving in Washington last year, drawing 2.69 million fans and fielding a first-place team for much of the season. But the team is in last place in the National League East this season with a record of 38-52 as baseball prepares to play its annual All-Star Game tonight. Attendance is on track for about 2.2 million.

The team drew only 23,118 on July 4 -- one of the lowest totals in the league this year on what is traditionally one of the biggest attendance days after Opening Day -- compared with 44,331 on July 4 last year.

Kasten attributed the decline to several factors, including the drop-off in season tickets because of the uncertainty over a new owner throughout the offseason, the team's poor on-field performance and an unavoidable slump following the excitement over baseball's return to Washington last year after a 33-year absence.

Starting July 25, when the San Francisco Giants and Barry Bonds come to Washington for three games, the Nationals will reduce the price of 2,000 upper-deck seats, representing 4.4 percent of the stadium's capacity of 45,250. About 1,000 $7 seats will be reduced to $3, and 1,000 $11 seats will be reduced to $5. The rest of the Nationals' ticket prices, which average $20.88 and rank 15th highest among Major League Baseball teams, will remain the same. The league average is $22.21, according to Team Marketing Report, which follows ticket prices for professional sports teams.

The team is also creating a "value meal" that will allow a customer to purchase a hot dog, beverage and bag of potato chips for $7.50 instead of the $10.50 it would cost if purchased separately.

"There is no one who can object to coming to a game because of price and affordability," Kasten said.

The initiatives are intended to help preserve the team's fan base as the Nationals wait to move into a $611 million stadium that the city is building along the Anacostia Waterfront in Southeast. The stadium is scheduled to open in April 2008.

The Lerners plan to introduce theme-based food courts, improve signage and music, and create an interactive "Fan Zone" in the ballpark. He said the team will attempt to cut long lines and increase choices by adding additional food stands and cash registers.

Customers arriving at the stadium for the Cubs series will be greeted by a red carpet at the entrance to RFK and will be welcomed by Nationals players, members of the Lerner family and their partners, Kasten said. He said there will be live music outside the ballpark, and a fan fest area next to the D.C. Armory. There will be a new taxi stand outside RFK as well.

"We're doing what has to be done," Kasten said. He said that also includes planting flowers and improving the landscaping outside the stadium, steam-cleaning the concourses, adding banners outside the ballpark and staging races between innings around the perimeter of the field by costume characters resembling former U.S. presidents. The team has hired a Pennsylvania-based firm to help train its game staff, including ushers, concession workers, ticket-takers and security.

The team will launch a "Paint the Town Red" weekend when the Cubs arrive for a Friday night game on July 21 by giving away team merchandise. Nationals hats will be given out July 21, followed by T-shirts July 22 and red towels July 23.

Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company