Very Much Sold On New Home

By Thomas Boswell
Friday, May 2, 2008

On the eve of Opening Day, everybody had an opinion on every aspect of Nationals Park. Now, with the first month of the season complete, early fears of poor attendance, terrible parking, traffic snarls and Metro delays turned out to have been overblown. The Nats' average attendance is up 40.1 percent over the comparable end-of-April date at RFK last season. Attendance so far is respectable though not spectacular for a new ballpark. It's slightly better than the average attendance jump of 36.8 percent that 13 other franchises had in new parks that opened since 1992.

The team's revenue from attendance may actually double this season. When you get much bigger crowds, increase ticket prices, then add fancy $400,000-a-year suites and $300 box seats, the multiplier effect is stunning. Shed no tears for the average crowd of 29,927. In total take at the gate, that's equivalent to a sellout every night at RFK.

"So far, our [gate] revenues really, really are good," one Nationals official said. This winter, if the Nats say they can't afford a free agent, don't believe them.

April has brought other pleasant surprises. Traffic flow around the stadium is generally smooth. Metro struggled to handle the big crowd after Saturday's game against the Cubs, but otherwise has been a hit. And parking is so much better than expected that hundreds of spaces in lots within a couple of blocks of the park now sit empty every night.

"There was plenty of gloom and doom for months. But now it looks like a lot of people did a lot of things right," said team president Stan Kasten, quickly listing the District government, Metro, the construction team and those with the Nats who fretted endlessly about finding more parking. "But there are lots of things to keep improving."

So far, crowds since Opening Day have not topped 36,000, but based on past patterns, the Nats probably will end up drawing more than 32,000 a game. Will the infrastructure of Nationals Park be able to cope with crowds that are several thousand a night larger in summer? Wait and see.

Ironically, the problems that emerged in April also came out of the blue. Snafus with formatting the displays on the massive new scoreboard were a surprise to the Nats. "We've had terrible problems with it," Kasten said. At some games, fans in much of the park have gone innings at a time without essential scoreboard information -- the count, the number of outs. The Nats say the problem is fixed. It better be. If you don't know the "situation," you aren't at the game.

Time in food lines also has been unsatisfactory. Since the nightmarish hour-long waits at Ben's Chili Bowl on Opening Day, improvement has been steady. But while the quality and variety of food is as exceptional at Nationals Park as it was abysmal at RFK, those who serve it still haven't mastered the systems and procedures of the new park. "That's to be expected. We work on it every day," Kasten said.

One set of swamped lines and crowding, however, delights him. The restaurant and roof bar in center field, with adjoining beer rails, always is standing room only. "Do you realize that every one of those people has a ticket and a seat, but they'd rather stand in center field above the bleachers?" Kasten said. "That's when you know you have a hot spot. We're going to have to expand it."

For the most part, Kasten and General Manager Jim Bowden have minor miseries, like figuring out whether to put mirrors in the women's restrooms, even at the risk of creating longer, slower lines. "Every day I wait for the e-mails from fans who don't like this or that. But they don't come," said Bowden, who gets plenty of flak when fans don't like his trades.

However, one problem is a huge eyesore that won't be solved this season or maybe next either. In the metropolitan area with the highest per capita income in the country, more than half of the 1,900 best -- and highest-priced -- seats sit embarrassingly empty for every game. These amenity-gorged, steakhouse-access, padded seats sit directly behind home plate, cost $170 to $335, yet for TV viewers create the impression that the ballpark is almost vacant.

For those in the park, 1,000 empty glamour seats do not elicit warm and fuzzy thoughts. Many RFK season ticket holders are in worse seats now because they got pushed sideways or up.

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