By Thomas Boswell
Wednesday, August 29, 2007
In just seven months, the Nationals' new $611 million ballpark will open. Construction is on time, on budget. On the field, the Nats are already competitive: 49-50 since May 11. More important, the club signed all 20 draft picks this season. Since May 2006, the whole farm system has been hugely improved.
Yet a successful future for Washington baseball is far from secure. Two dark clouds hang over next season's Opening Day. First, attendance is alarmingly low this year -- sixth worst in baseball through Monday's games. Second, parking in Southeast next season may be such a nightmare that it drives away almost as many new fans as the new ballpark attracts.
If you want to worry, look at the empty seats at RFK Stadium. Whatever charm the overachieving Nats possess, it's not selling tickets. Only Florida's moribund franchises, the tail-end small-market teams in Kansas City and Pittsburgh, and the Oakland Athletics average fewer fans than the Nats. Perhaps the grand plan will include a big free agent signing so the Nationals have a chance to be a winning team next year or enjoy a wild-card race like the 2005 team that was 11th in the majors in attendance. Of course, the season ticket base in 2005 was 22,500; it's fallen this season to less than 16,000.
After 33 seasons without a team, Washington may need extra pump-priming to draw enough fans to support a major-market payroll. The Nationals' intention to raise their payroll substantially from this season's $38 million may help. Ten teams now average 37,389 fans or more a game -- more than 50 percent above the Nats' humble 24,216. To compete with the sport's elite, Washington needs to approach sellouts in almost every game in most seasons.
That need for packed houses points to the more serious problem for the Nats' future. Next season, the team must capture a far larger fan base, one that expects luxury in its high-priced baseball experience. Just when a superb first impression is needed, though, the limited parking near the new stadium may alienate thousands of fans.
In its fetch-the-Expos projections, the District estimated 8,914 parking spaces could be found. Now (surprise), the Nats are scrounging to find 6,000. And time is running short. "Everybody needs a sense of urgency about the parking problems," said Mark Lerner, the Nationals' principal owner. "We're part of a huge development project for this city. If we're a disaster, everybody around us will be a disaster of monumental proportions."
Here's the recipe for that parking mess. At RFK, 53 percent of the crowd arrives by car. The new park will hold 41,000 fans. If the same proportion arrive by car, that's 22,000 people coming to the riverfront for sellout games. On average, a car carries 2.75 fans. Do the math. It's ugly. To make everybody happy, you need 8,000 parking spaces.
The Nats are guaranteed a new garage with 1,225 spaces. They can also lease spaces in nearby commercial parking lots. But there's still a shortfall of 1,000 to 2,000 spots -- just to get to 6,000.
The Nats plan a public education campaign so more fans will take Metro, just as subways are the lifelines to Fenway Park in Boston and Wrigley Field in Chicago. But new habits take time to form. And more than a third of any baseball crowd simply will not come if they can't drive.
Close to the new park are four potential temporary parking lots that could provide more than 1,500 spaces. But they may not be in use to start next season, even though nobody is opposed to using the properties for that purpose.
To the park's north sits a bus garage, to the east is a fleet of sewage trucks and, to the south, almost touching the park, is a cement and gravel factory that belches huge dust clouds on weekday afternoons. Farther north is the biggest parking plum -- the Southeast Federal Center -- where the Nats might, at least in theory, be able to lease more than 800 spaces.
You don't want or need to know the red-tape details, the zoning procedures and cross-agency coordination that would be needed to transform these facilities into temporary parking. The issue is simple: Many in the District government, as well as the D.C. Sports & Entertainment Commission and the Nationals front office, think these areas have parking potential. It's time to expedite finding out if they really do. If they don't, then move on to other possibilities. Nobody should be bullied. But it's fair to appeal to a sense of civic responsibility and to beg everyone involved for a little speed.
"Nobody's at fault. Everything is doable. But it's going to require cooperation between city, Metro, sewage authority, business improvement district, landowners and the team," said Greg McCarthy, the Nationals' director for the ballpark district. "We are all plodding along, incrementally getting there. The city has moved some mountains. But this is a big mountain range."
"Mayor [Adrian M.] Fenty and his staff have been tremendous," Lerner added. But the problem remains. The clock ticks.
The most exasperating dead end has been the 800-car garage underneath the new U.S. Department of Transportation building. After workers leave, spaces might be used by a list of specific season ticket holders. To ensure security, proposals have been offered that include checking fans' Social Security numbers or thumbprints, or even subjecting them to iris identification. The Ronald Reagan Building faces similar security concerns yet manages to accommodate both government and civilian cars.
"I don't want to say we have given up, but, in the end, it's not the Department of Transportation's responsibility to help us," one source said. "They just weren't interested."
It's not Transportation's job. But it sure would be nice if the federal department felt noble and helped.
Perhaps we should not worry so much. Maybe a gaudy new ballpark will be such a fan magnet that it makes all other considerations irrelevant, especially since Lerner now says that his family's contribution to stadium upgrades to attract larger crowds -- originally estimated at over $30 million last winter -- will be "every bit of" $50 million.
Nonetheless, this season's slack attendance should give anyone pause. The Nationals and Orioles had almost identical average attendance last season (26,582 to 26,583). But attendance in Baltimore, with less than half Washington's metro area, is averaging 27,375 through Monday, more than 3,000 a game more than the Nats.
"Our attendance reflects our season ticket base, which was established last winter," Nationals President Stan Kasten said. "The growth of the team over time is what will make us successful. The fans aren't on my list of top 100 worries. For the new ballpark, the pace at which we are selling tickets now is fantastic. Up substantially. We've see a big, big boost."
As for stretching the payroll to excite fan in '08, Kasten said: "With very, very few exceptions, individual players don't sell tickets. Did Alfonso Soriano sell a lot of extra tickets last year? Teams sell tickets."
However, if a free agent center fielder, like the Braves' Andruw Jones, the Twins' Torii Hunter or the Phils' Aaron Rowand, helped get the Nats within sight of wild-card contention, that might sell a lot of tickets.
So much has gone better than expected in the last year that it's easy to pretend there are no major problems. Why be tormented by doubts? The answer is basic: Because we never want to look back and say, "What if?"
Next season is not about the Nats as much as it is about the District's enormous investment on the Anacostia waterfront. In view of its current crowds, the team needs to spend some offseason money to generate enthusiasm next spring. And every constituency involved in battling the parking problems in Southeast needs to understand that the next seven months are not business as usual. This is a unique, once in a generation opportunity. Don't blow it over a couple of thousand parking spaces.