Poor Season Raises the Stakes for Stadium

The new Nationals ballpark in Southeast Washington will feature 66 luxury suites, thousands of high-priced club seats, two restaurants and corporate sponsorship and has been designed to generate as much cash as possible.
The new Nationals ballpark in Southeast Washington will feature 66 luxury suites, thousands of high-priced club seats, two restaurants and corporate sponsorship and has been designed to generate as much cash as possible. (Hok Sport And D.c. Sports And Entertainment Commission)
By David Nakamura and Thomas Heath
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, October 1, 2006

The Washington Nationals' disappointing on-field performance this season, coupled with a drop in ticket sales at 45-year-old RFK Stadium, has underscored the importance of finishing a new $611 million ballpark in time for the 2008 season.

Heading into today's finale against the New York Mets at RFK, the Nationals carry a 71-90 record, the worst in the National League East. The team has sold 2.1 million tickets, down from 2.7 million last season, and the average sales of 26,501 tickets per game rank the Nationals 21st out of 30 Major League Baseball teams.

Even the team's most die-hard fans expressed dismay over the franchise's second season in Washington.

"Whether you are a fan, an owner, a player, a coach or anybody, there's no question you would have to characterize this season as a disappointment," said Phil Blando, 35, a season-ticket holder from Georgetown.

The news this season wasn't all bad, though, because several outstanding questions were resolved. D.C. government officials agreed on a stadium financing plan, and an ownership group headed by Bethesda developer Theodore N. Lerner assumed control of the team in July. Additionally, an agreement was reached to put the majority of games on cable television throughout the region.

As Nationals President Stan Kasten moves to strengthen the team in the offseason -- hiring a successor to manager Frank Robinson, whose contract has not been renewed for next year, and possibly re-signing star outfielder Alfonso Soriano -- he hopes to use the team's final season at RFK to retain fan interest until the new 41,000-seat ballpark opens.

With 66 luxury suites, thousands of high-priced club seats, two restaurants and corporate sponsorship, the ballpark along the Anacostia River in Southeast Washington has been designed to generate as much cash as possible.

Such a financial surge can launch teams on a multiyear trajectory of profits, team officials said, fueling a winning team on the field.

"I now believe, after my first 60 days on the job . . . that we're going to be able to do this faster than I thought," Kasten said during a speech Friday at the National Press Club.

Last season, when fans celebrated baseball's return to the District after 34 years, the Nationals raced to first place by the mid-season All-Star break. The team finished with an 81-81 record but still ranked 11th in ticket sales with 33,651 per game.

That success translated into a $25 million pretax profit for the Nationals and $9.2 million in tax revenue for the District.

This season, the District is on pace to earn about $8.5 million in tax revenue, although final numbers won't be tallied until November. The tax money helps pay debt service on the construction bonds for the new ballpark.

"I'm confident that as the team begins its third year in Washington and moves to a new stadium in 2008, that crowds, and revenue, will go back up," Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) said in a statement. "Don't forget that we're building this thing up from scratch."

Kasten declined to say how much money the team will earn this season.

Andrew Zimbalist, an author of sports economics books and professor of economics at Smith College in Massachusetts, said baseball will thrive in the District once the Nationals perform better and are ensconced in the new stadium.

"Clearly when baseball came back after a 34-year hiatus last year, there was going to be a very powerful novelty effect," he said. "The newness obviously wears off. . . . The team wasn't very good this year. It stunk."

In his speech, Kasten acknowledged the limitations of RFK, which has no luxury suites and features dark, narrow concourses. The Lerner group staged a "grand reopening" of the facility after buying the team in July, including adding food options, cleaning dusty concourses and laying red carpet outside the stadium. But otherwise, there was little the owners could do to improve the fan experience, Kasten said. The team does not even have a corporate naming rights deal at RFK, which is standard fare for most franchises.

The Lerner group, which paid $450 million for the Nationals, has focused on ensuring that there is sufficient parking at the new stadium and hired consultants to make the ballpark fun for fans, especially those willing to pay for high-priced luxury boxes and club seats.

The stadium will afford the Nationals a rare chance to capture new fans, solidify its current audience and provide the financial heft to become a long-term, winning franchise. It's similar to the playbook that Kasten used in Atlanta, where the Braves ended up winning a record 12 consecutive division titles under his leadership.

"RFK will never be more than good old RFK," Kasten said. "By the time we get the new park open in '08, it's going to [provide] the best experience you can possibly have."

Mark H. Tuohey, chairman of the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission, said ballpark construction is proceeding on schedule. Workers have erected hundreds of concrete pilings and are shaping the clubhouses and seating bowls, with a major delivery of steel to the site -- a critical step -- set for Friday.

"This stadium is going to get done on time," Tuohey said.

For fans such as Blando, the future seems bright.

"The single biggest positive development of the Nationals this year is that they now have an owner, stability and a plan to succeed in place," said Blando, who plans to renew his season-ticket package. "People can feel optimistic that they are going to get the job done. Whenever I mention that I'm a Nationals season-ticket holder to anyone, all everyone mentions is that there's a new stadium and how excited they are."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company