By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 27, 2007
LAKELAND, Fla., March 26 -- One week before the Washington Nationals open their third season in the District -- their first full year under the new ownership group headed by Theodore Lerner -- some of the club's most ardent fans were still awaiting their season tickets, a development that has caused significant consternation among customers and concern for club officials.
"Let me just say this," Nationals President Stan Kasten said by phone Monday. "We are very, very unhappy."
Hundreds of fans were apparently given tracking numbers by FedEx, the company responsible for delivery, that indicated the tickets would arrive Wednesday, five days before the April 2 opener against Florida at RFK Stadium. Kasten said that those delivery dates were inaccurate, and club officials had been told "perhaps 90 percent of the tickets" actually would be delivered by Monday night.
The club switched delivery companies after using DHL last year. Asked why there were delays this season, Kasten said: "I don't think all the answers are known yet, but we had made some changes in the offseason. Obviously, more changes are necessary."
Such mixups are taken seriously by fans, in part because the team is undergoing a massive rebuilding process on the field, one which leaves an Opening Day payroll of roughly $36 million, a drop of more than $25 million from last year, when Washington finished last in the National League East. There was a perception, fans said, that once the Lerners and Kasten officially took over last July -- after purchasing the club from Major League Baseball -- their logistical concerns would be immediately resolved.
"It seems like Stan has spent a lot of time paying lip service to customer service, to how important season ticket holders are," said Mark Wolven, 41, of Alexandria. "But I don't think the season ticket holder experience has improved."
Some fans said Monday that they consider the situation to be symptomatic of problems with the Nationals' customer service since the team arrived in Washington in 2005 with MLB in charge. Carl Herrin, 48, of Silver Spring, said he attends roughly 15 games a year. FedEx tried to deliver Herrin's tickets Monday, and he said in an e-mail, "In fairness to Stan and the Lerner gang, their delivery service tried like the dickens to get things to folks as promised."
But he still has concerns about whether the club understands the importance of such seemingly minute matters.
"I'm nervous that this team, even with a new ownership group, isn't going to get even the simple things right," Herrin said by phone. "It makes me uneasy."
Several fans reached by phone and e-mail in recent days said that even if tickets arrived Monday, they would remain worried because so many are involved in large groups that split up the 82-game home schedule -- which includes Saturday's exhibition game against the Baltimore Orioles at RFK Stadium. Getting tickets even a week in advance, some said, put pressure on the ticket buyers to divvy up and then send out the tickets to the other members of their groups.
"Just as hope springs eternal at this time of year, so does nervousness when you're wondering: When will they arrive? Will I get them in time?" said David Carter, the executive director of the University of Southern California's Sports Business Institute. "It's about trust. The fans have to know that in an ownership transition, you don't just flip a switch and everything runs smoothly. There will be hiccups this first year. But with the first opportunity to reach out to fans this season -- getting them tickets -- you don't want to create anger."
Kasten wouldn't blame anyone in particular Monday. But he clearly found the situation untenable. Kasten constantly points to customer service as one of the tenets of the organization.
"We obviously heard about the problems that had existed in the past [under MLB], and that's why we changed shipping companies," he said. "Obviously, there's much more that needs to be fixed."
Asked how long in advance he would like to get tickets to his customers in future seasons, Kasten said: "I want to do it obviously much earlier than they were received this year -- and we will. We're interested in anything that will, in the future, help customers more."
The team will play its final season at RFK Stadium this year before moving into a $611 million ballpark on the Anacostia River for 2008. The club drew nearly 2.7 million fans in 2005, baseball's first season in the District since 1971. That number dropped to fewer than 2.2 million last year.
Kasten would not disclose how many season tickets the team has sold this season, but said he would discuss the matter later this week.
Some fans concerned about the game experience at RFK or customer service issues said they have been encouraged by the way the club has handled complaints. Kasten, addressing one recent concern of fans, said Monday there would be no change to the food policy at RFK Stadium, and that fans will still be allowed to bring in such items as water, soda and sandwiches.
Sean MacCarthy, 29, lives in the District and has purchased season tickets for the most expensive seats at RFK -- those right behind home plate -- for all three years. As of late Monday afternoon, he didn't have his tickets in hand and was concerned about the "same bad hot dogs, the same cold hamburgers" he had endured in years past.
But when he e-mailed Kasten a detailed report of his complaints in December, he received a phone call almost immediately. The two discussed the issues for about 20 minutes, MacCarthy said.
"I've been pleasantly surprised by the responsiveness of the team," MacCarthy said. "But I just hope that the actions in the future will speak as loud as the words."