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."
Nationals President Stan Kasten declined to be interviewed for this story, saying he was "done" talking about attendance. But privately, team officials point out their attendance has been kept down by factors both within and outside the franchise's control.
Before the Nationals played their first home game of the year, their season was already teetering on the brink of hopelessness, thanks to a season-opening 0-6 trip that cast a pall over Opening Day at Nationals Park.
Opening Day itself -- which became the team's seventh straight loss -- was played in 53-degree, overcast conditions, and the weather scarcely improved during the team's first two homestands. Of the 13 home dates so far, only three have seen temperatures of 70 degrees or higher, and 11 were described as being played under "cloudy" or "overcast" conditions in the official game notes. Two games already have been postponed by rain, and a third game was suspended by rain in the 11th inning.
Kasten typically reveals the franchise's season ticket base during the early part of the season, but this year he has declined to do so. However, by definition, that base is no higher than 12,473 -- the lowest attendance figure so far this year -- and probably slightly lower, which would represent a decline by about one-third from last year.
By some measures, the health of the franchise is solid. In its annual valuation of MLB franchises, Forbes magazine reported last month that the Nationals turned the second-largest profit in baseball last year: $42.6 million. However, the magazine also said the franchise had declined in value by 12 percent from a year ago, from $460 million to $406 million, ranking it the 14th-most valuable in the sport.
However, summing up the Nationals' health, the magazine wrote: "The owners of the Washington Nationals have badly botched the job thus far of trying to successfully bring Major League Baseball to the nation's capital for the third time. Blame the Lerner family, who bought the team in 2006 for $450 million and dominate the ownership group. Managing Principal Owner Theodore Lerner and the four other family members who are principal owners furnish one of the league's lowest payrolls despite a new, taxpayer-financed stadium."
Asked if he was concerned about the health of the Nationals, DuPuy said: "We're concerned about all our franchises. But in terms of being worried? No. We think that franchise has extraordinarily talented personnel, and they've got solid ownership. We think when they win a few games, things will be different."