Empty Seats a Big Problem for Washington Nationals

The lonely and the brave: You can find them at Nationals Park, where second-year attendance is down 35.2 percent.
The lonely and the brave: You can find them at Nationals Park, where second-year attendance is down 35.2 percent. (By John Mcdonnell -- The Washington Post)
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By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 15, 2009

It was only fitting, in a season in which every large or small factor that could depress attendance at Nationals Park has come to pass, that the meatiest part of Ryan Zimmerman's galvanizing hitting streak would occur three time zones from Washington, only to fizzle out at 30 games just before the Nationals open a season-long, 11-game homestand.

The end of Zimmerman's streak, the longest in baseball in nearly two years, on Wednesday afternoon in San Francisco robbed the upcoming homestand, which opens tonight against the defending World Series champion Philadelphia Phillies, of any buzz it might have otherwise engendered.

With the Washington Capitals having exited the NHL playoffs, the District's sporting stage belongs entirely to Zimmerman and the Nationals. But will anyone notice?

The early part of the Nationals' home schedule has seen a confluence of events and trends -- a bad team, a bad economy and bad weather -- that has sent the team's attendance numbers plummeting at an alarming rate in its second season at Nationals Park.

Through 13 home dates, the Nationals, at 11-21 baseball's worst team, are averaging just 19,409 fans per game, which ranks 28th out of the 30 teams in the majors, behind only Pittsburgh (15,300) and Oakland (18,030). At their current rate, the Nationals would draw a total of fewer than 1.6 million fans, which would be the fewest since the team arrived in Washington from Montreal in 2005.

The 19,409 average attendance also represents a drop-off of 35.2 percent over the Nationals' first 13 home dates of 2008, by far the largest decrease this year in major league baseball, which is experiencing a decline of nearly 5 percent across the board.

"Obviously, [Nationals officials] are disappointed in the attendance, but more importantly they're disappointed in the performance of the team," said Bob DuPuy, president and chief operating officer of Major League Baseball. "The team got off to a very slow start. But they've got good young talent, and the key is to win some games. You look at some of the teams who are drawing well, and who have drawn well, and you can see winning is a powerful reason for fans to come out."

The Nationals were bracing for a steep decline in attendance this season, given the state of the economy and the traditional drop-off typically seen in the second year of a new stadium. But the degree of the decline still appears to have caught some in the industry by surprise, and in some corners it has revived the debate about Washington's viability as a baseball market.

"The drop-off shouldn't be anywhere near 35 percent," said Marc Ganis, president and founder of SportsCorp, a Chicago-based sports business consulting firm. "It has to be disappointing to everyone associated with bringing the Nationals to Washington. . . . There's a question as to how well even a good product will draw in Washington. Will there be recurrent sellouts for the better part of a decade, like in Cleveland after Jacobs Field opened? I doubt it -- because the market isn't a great baseball market."

However, Andrew Zimbalist, a Smith College economics professor and the author of "The Economics of Sport," said the Nationals' decline in attendance is not particularly shocking, given the major factors at work.

"This year, the novelty effect [of the new stadium] has worn off, and we're in this so-called great recession," said Zimbalist. "And in addition, the team is still a very weak team that, other than Mr. Zimmerman, doesn't seem to have created much excitement. When you put those facts together, it pretty much explains what has happened. . . .

"The most important factor, way above any other, is the team's competitiveness on the playing field. When you don't have that, it's difficult, no matter how good the market or the stadium, to be a successful draw. Once [the Nationals] turn the corner in terms of competitive strength, I see them being a very successful franchise."

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