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Nationals Find Their New Home Still Feels a Little Empty at Times

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Since they were announced as the new owners of the Washington Nationals in May 2006, the relatives of real estate magnate Ted Lerner have been consistent with their pledge to build the on-field product methodically through an ask-for-patience approach, one heavy on scouting and development, low on splash. But after the first homestand at Nationals Park, it appears off-field growth -- in the stands of their plush new mansion -- might take time, too.

Through seven home games -- a small sample, to be sure -- the Nationals have averaged 28,214 tickets sold, which is the way Major League Baseball officially reports attendance. That average, at this early point in the season, ranks 20th among the 30 major league clubs and is about 5,400 fewer than what the club wooed to run-down RFK Stadium in 2005, its first year in town. Sports marketing experts say the early-season attendance reflects the difficult challenges the Nationals face in a crowded market.

"In today's world, the competition in sports entertainment for that dollar is greater than ever -- in suites, club seats, sponsorship, naming rights," said Bob Leffler, president of the Baltimore-based Leffler Agency. "It's not new anymore. Therefore, when you're matched up against pro organizations and university organizations in profusion -- everybody's got a program, and they're all going for the same money -- you've got to be really, really accurate in your assessments. Sometimes, [a fan base] just doesn't come because you're new or have a new stadium."

The attendance thus far includes a sellout on March 30, Opening Night, when 39,389 fans bought tickets (and roughly 2,500 were issued seats for free, meaning they don't count in attendance figures). It also includes 20,487 for the second home game of the year, April 7 against Florida. Since 1992, when Baltimore's Oriole Park at Camden Yards began a renaissance period for new ballparks, 16 existing franchises have moved into new facilities. None has drawn a smaller crowd for its second home game than the Nationals. Only Cincinnati's Great American Ball Park experienced a greater drop-off between the first and second home games. Indeed, the Nationals sold 513 more tickets to the second home game of the 2007 season at RFK Stadium than they did this April 7.

Nationals President Stan Kasten declared himself "very pleased" with the second night's attendance, and said temperatures in the 40s, a lackluster opponent and competition from the NCAA men's basketball championship game could all be factors.

"I wouldn't have come and watched early in the week either," star third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. "It's 30 degrees outside. You crazy? They got HD now."

Five days later, 32,542 people bought tickets on a pleasant Saturday afternoon to see the Nationals and Atlanta Braves. Some seats have proven popular. The club level is sold out for the year, and terrace- and gallery-level seats, some priced at $10, were all but full most of the homestand.

In the industry, though, some observers were struck by the empty seats in certain sections of the 41,888-seat park. Behind home plate, the "Presidential Seats" -- priced at $300 in a season-ticket package, $325 for an individual game -- aren't sold out, creating a striking view of empty seats from the center field television camera. The park also has 78 suites, among the chief means to generate revenue; officials said roughly two-thirds of those are sold.

Kasten said the Nationals' season ticket base is a little over 18,000, which he said ranks 11th in the majors. It is down from what the club's previous administration reported as 22,500 in 2005, when baseball returned to the District after a 33-year absence. Mark Lerner, son of Ted Lerner and one of the club's principal owners, said he wouldn't describe himself as "patient" with attendance. But just as with the baseball team, he said building a fan base is a process.

"Certainly, we've got to put the right team on the field," Lerner said. "We also have to take care of the people when they're here so they have a great experience. I think so far everybody's having a great experience when they're here."

Friday night, when the Nationals drew 28,051 to see the Braves, Lerner attended the Washington Capitals' playoff opener at Verizon Center, where a rabid, sellout crowd watched a dramatic victory over Philadelphia. "If you have a great season," Leffler said, "you become 'in.' The Capitals are 'in.' They'll get a bump in attendance next year."

Lerner, who has a minority stake in the Capitals, said he sees parallels between the two organizations. Capitals owner Ted Leonsis was criticized when the team pared its payroll and built from within, and attendance lagged. Now, the Capitals have a young nucleus of potential stalwarts that might make playoff appearances the norm rather than an anomaly. That, Lerner believes, will strengthen attendance for hockey. He said he hopes baseball follows the same pattern.

"Despite all the criticism he received, in the end I think it'll be the right thing," Lerner said of Leonsis. "They'll have a consistent product now, year-to-year. And we'll get there. It's going to take some time, but we're getting there."

More than anything, sports marketing experts said, the Nationals need to win. Kasten has said on more than one occasion that the club "will get the attendance we deserve." A nine-game losing streak that ended Sunday didn't increase buzz. "Winning heals all wounds," Leffler said.

"Everybody wants to win," Lerner said. "We know this is not a short-term thing. We're looking long-term, big-picture."

The long-term might include springs such as this one, in which both the Capitals and NBA's Wizards are in the playoffs. But Lerner believes there can be springs when Nationals Park, too, is sold out.

"You can live to fight another day, because it's early," Leffler said. "You can still dig it out, because it is attractive. It's a very, very big market."

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