Tuned Out at Home

By Thomas Boswell
Wednesday, July 9, 2008

The Nats did not need insult added to all their injuries. But that's what they've got.

Of all the stunning and unexpected sports statistics that we will ever see, few take the breath away more quickly than the assertion on Monday, in Nielsen Media Research data published by SportsBusiness Journal, that only 9,000 household TV sets, out of a metropolitan area of 5.5 million people, are tuned to the average Nationals game.

"Nine thousand?" said an incredulous Manny Acta, eyebrows arched. "Is that possible?"

That's the universal reaction. From the Nats up to Commissioner Bud Selig, that raw number, a minuscule 0.39 average rating, got reactions from skepticism to shock to concern.

Do the Nats really have so few devoted fans? Or is this a one-summer exodus because so many Nats players have been hurt? Did Peter Angelos, who pays the Nats about $25 million a year for their local TV rights, actually get the short end of what was originally considered a sweetheart deal? Is his MASN so inept that in Washington, and in Baltimore, too, its ability to penetrate the local TV market is at the bottom of baseball?

"We don't run MASN. TV ratings used to be my life [with the CNN-owned Braves]. Now I pay no attention to it. It's entirely their deal. The Nationals just get a check," said Nats President Stan Kasten, referring to MASN and MASN2 that broadcasts all Nats and Orioles games and are predominantly owned by Angelos.

"However, this I do know," Kasten said. With that he spread his arms toward Nationals Park, once again filling nicely, if not spectacularly, with a crowd of 26,820 that brings Washington's average attendance to 29,689, 15th best of 30 teams. "We have always had the highest confidence about this market."

That Nats anomaly --normal MLB crowds but infinitesimal TV ratings that would have to triple to match the next-worst team -- has caused a buzz of perplexity through baseball. Every other team has more local TV households than fans in the ballpark. For many clubs, the ratio is several-to-one. The worst ratio -- except the Nats' -- is the Orioles' 26,059 fans to 33,000 TV households. But even that is still more TVs turned on than fans in the seats.

How can any team draw 30,000 breathing humans but repel almost every potential TV viewer? Could the combination of a wonderful new park, coupled with an awful (injured) team really produce such a ratio? Is the park so good that it is, temporarily, disguising an almost total lack of a true fan base? What does such a number portend for the future?

"I'm a little startled. It's certainly unusual. I'll dig into it," Selig said about a TV household rating that's a fifth or less of what you would expect, given actual attendance. "I look at attendance every day -- it's 42,372,000, right now, I think. That's the basic measure of a team's support. I don't look at local TV ratings until August.

"Actually, I'm quite pleased with Washington's attendance -- almost 30,000. That's pretty damn good with everything that's happened to them" with injuries, Selig added. "I feel as good about Washington as I ever have."

Nonetheless, if such awful local TV ratings prove to be the rule, rather than a mere one-season flip-the-dial reaction to a team so depleted that it bats Cristian Guzmán third and Austin Kearns (.201) clean-up, then the repercussions could be large. For reference, in Nielsen data, the Nats averaged about 17,000 households last year (still terrible), compared with the Wizards (20,700), Capitals (17,940) and D.C. United (11,500) in their most recent seasons.

What could this 9,000 number mean for the future, near and long term?

Perhaps the day will come when Angelos will think that it is in his interests to sell back the Nationals' TV rights to the Washington franchise. After all, the Orioles owner seems to be getting killed right now, paying the Nats as much for their local rights as a top 15 baseball TV market so that his network can reach a measly 9,000 homes. According to SportsBusiness Journal, more homes in the Washington market watched the Orioles last month than the Nats.

Did the Baltimore owner spectacularly misjudge the value of the Washington market when he agreed to pay an annually increasing rate to the Nats for their local TV, so long as he kept the larger share of MASN's profits? Now, where is that gold mine if the Nats rank dead last with the Orioles third-from-last in the number of TV households reached?

Perhaps the Nats' TV malady may impact the Lerner family as well. Will the Nats' owners feel a warm fire being lit under their feet over the next three weeks as they consider whether to make trades that add, rather than subtract, talent and payroll from their major league roster before the Aug. 1 trade deadline.

If it's true that you could fit every Nats TV viewer into the team's upper deck -- with room to spare -- perhaps there's a frightening future in that stark stat. Can the franchise risk alienating the affections of a city that, just three years ago, rejoiced when the Nats were in first place at the all-star break and the darlings of the entire sport? Washington actually tasted the summer joy that attends a mere wild-card race, even when you don't make the playoffs. That whiff of success makes the current 102-loss pace more bitter.

Finally, what part of the problem lies with MASN itself? If the Nats are dead last in every TV metric, then the Orioles are third-to-last in number of TV households reached.

Why can't MASN sell its product to people sitting at home when the Nats and O's will get fans to spend about $150 million to burn gas to head to their home ballparks?

Last night, a healthy crowd filed into Nationals Park, a gate well within the parameters of what the baseball industry expected when it returned to Washington. Even with a wave of injuries that currently has Nick Johnson, Chad Cordero and perhaps Shawn Hill out for the season, the Nats' no-shows continue to be low, compared with the league average. Lots of that is the inherent appeal of the park. But Ryan Zimmerman, Lastings Milledge and Elijah Dukes are sidelined for weeks more as well. Yet 25,000 to 35,000 fans a game actually occupy their seats, that constitutes interest and loyalty. At least for now.

"The fans we have are ample and highly appreciated. We are going to build this franchise for the long haul and do it right the first time," said Kasten, knowing the Nats' farm teams have the second-best combined record in the minor leagues.

"We are going to build a championship team here. The losses we are suffering now are more painful to us than to anybody else."

That's probably true. Aside from those enjoying a summer night at Nationals Park, apparently nobody else is enduring the pain of watching.

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