Nats' Cheap Seats Are No Substitute for Excitement

By Raw Fisher
Tuesday, September 23, 2008

From Marc Fisher's blog, Raw fisher

The Washington Nationals' inaugural season in their new ballpark has been an on-field disaster, a fan-experience success and a decent but not very exciting performer as a business. As this season-long adventure in player injuries comes to a close, the Lerner family and team executives are spreading the word that they intend to step up their game in time for next spring. But will lowering some ticket prices be enough to propel Washington's baseball franchise into a sorely needed pivot?

The team announced this month that it will cut prices for season-ticket holders on 7,500 of Nationals Park's 42,000 seats. This is not just a token move -- some pretty big swaths of the stadium will be significantly cheaper. Some lower bowl seats will drop from $45 per game to $30. And some sections that often sat empty this season may prove more popular at $18 than they were at $25.

Nats tickets were already among the more modestly priced in baseball. And now, more than a third of the stadium's seats will be $20 or less, a relative bargain in the sports world. But ticket prices are not the reason the Nats are sitting in 18th place in Major League Baseball attendance -- well ahead of Baltimore, but behind much-smaller-market teams such as St. Louis, Milwaukee, Denver and San Diego.

No, the problem is threefold:

1) The team is not only really bad -- yes, minor league bad -- but just as important, it failed to offer fans marquee players who might get the turnstiles spinning. Most fans readily accept that a new team must go through a rebuilding phase, and the consensus among baseball cognoscenti is that the Lerners have invested in a greatly strengthened scouting and minor league system, which should pay off in strong major league players. But the Nationals have made little effort so far under the Lerner ownership to bring to town big-name players who might do what Alfonso Soriano did in his short time playing at RFK -- electrify the crowd and bring in people who only know a smattering about the game.

On Raw Fisher Radio the other day, Washington Post D.C. Sports Bog impresario Dan Steinberg argued that Washington's tradition of fair-weather fandom is evident in the slipping attendance at Nationals Park and, more so, in the games' pathetically low TV and radio ratings. But longtime D.C. baseball commentator Phil Wood countered that the Nats are victims this year of lousy luck -- an almost unbelievable string of injuries -- and marketing mistakes.

2) My family made late-season visits to games in New York and Baltimore, where we were reminded of two factors that raise doubts about baseball in Washington: Even with their home team out of the game and out of playoff contention, crowds in those cities were into the action, cheering madly, arriving early and staying to the end. By contrast, the crowd at Nats Park doesn't settle in until the game is a third over. By the sixth inning, there's a noticeable stream of fans toward the exits. Even on those rare occasions when the Nats are rallying, the place is way too quiet.

Would a good marketing campaign fix that? Do Washingtonians need to be taught the basics of baseball? Nats President Stan Kasten has always said that baseball depends heavily on the casual fan, the family that just wants a fun evening out and doesn't follow the game closely. That's fine, but even casual fans want to join in cheering on their team, and that's missing at Nats Park.

3) No one expected the area around the new stadium to be anything other than a construction site this year, but the economic downturn means the wait for the city's much-ballyhooed baseball district will be longer, even if developers say they're still confident a bustling neighborhood of restaurants, bars and shops will eventually emerge.

The team's well-intentioned PR campaign teaching area residents that one must not drive to Nationals Park succeeded too well. Even though it quickly became apparent that parking near the ballpark is plentiful and easy, that new message never caught up with the preseason scare story about how Metro was the only way to get there.

Metro has handled crowds efficiently, but the fact remains that there is nothing worth hanging around for before or after games, and there probably won't be for several more years.

Nats executives and city officials are still bullish on baseball's future here, but the team and the District are busy battling each other over money -- not exactly a promising way to start a relationship.

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