The Strasburg effect

By Thomas Heath
Monday, June 21, 2010

The Stephen Strasburg June 8 debut may have been a pitcher's masterpiece, but it was also the kind of economic and marketing home run the Washington Nationals sorely needed.

Strasburg broke television and merchandise records. He sold out Nationals Park. He spiked sales at other stadiums. Networks started canceling other baseball broadcasts to put on Strasburg.

There are Strasburgers, Strasburg memorabilia, an online Strasburg baseball card that went up with his first pitch. Beer sales inside and outside the stadium rocketed.

Major League Baseball authenticated everything from the debut game's bases to Strasburg's uniform to the game's balls and scorecards. Even the dirt on the pitcher's mound was scraped up and authenticated for posterity.

To borrow a phrase from marketers, Strasburg "broke through," creating a buzz around him beyond baseball.

"It has a material effect on the psyche of Washington by tuning people into the Nationals and giving us the ability to tell the larger story," said Andy Feffer, the team's chief operating officer.

The city may finally start getting some economic spinoff in return for building the $611 million, 41,888-seat stadium where the team plays.

Tickets: The Stephen Strasburg June 8 debut was the Washington Nationals' second sellout of the year; the other was Opening Day. Over 16,000 tickets more than normal were sold for Strasburg's second start, in Cleveland (the game was the Indians' second-highest attended game after Opening Day). On the secondary ticket market, a $60 seat sold for $200, according to Jeff Greenberg of ASC Ticket in Bethesda. "Finally, the Nats are a hot ticket," said Greenberg. "Demand is high. Typically, it's been a fight to make 5 to 10 percent profit on a ticket. When he pitches, we can see 50 percent or more. It's unprecedented."

Collectibles: auctioned some Strasburg collectibles after his first game. The top item was a Strasburg-signed ball he used to record his second strikeout, and he triple-inscribed it ("MLB debut, 14 Ks, 1st MLB win") so it became a "1 of 1" item. After 42 bids over five days on's auction site, the ball sold for $20,010, which is believed to be the highest sale price of any auction item since the 2004 Red Sox won the World Series.

Baseball cards: Topps released Strasburg's first-ever official MLB rookie card exclusively online via immediately following his first pitch in the big leagues, using a photo from that very first pitch. As such, it was the first card in which he ever appeared in a Washington Nationals uniform. Fans could only have a chance to "unlock" the card by using a code card found in Topps Series 1 or 2 and going to the Web site.

Merchandise: This month, Strasburg will be the number one jersey sold in the history of the Nationals. The Indians set up a merchandise stand at their ballpark dedicated to Strasburg during his game there June 13. "We obviously had a very significant amount of merchandise sales that day," said Nationals Chief Operating Officer Andy Feffer, adding that there were spikes in jersey sales for Ryan Zimmerman and other Nats players as the Strasburg exuberance overflowed. There were reports of red, curly "W" Nats hats deep behind enemy lines at Times Square in New York, where the Mets and Yankees dominate.

Television: MASN, the regional sports network that televises Nationals and Orioles games, recorded record numbers of viewers. Strasburg's major league debut earned a 7.1 household rating as more than 165,000 households in the Washington region tuned in. Because of the demand, MASN doubled its ad rates for the June 8 game and sold out the next two Strasburg outings. Among the key demographic of adults ages 25 to 54, the game earned a 4.4 household rating, which was another MASN record. The previous MASN record for a Nationals game was set in May with a 2.0 rating during consecutive games against the Mets.

Strasburg's first start on the MLB Network resulted in the highest viewership on the network since it has been rated.

Burgers and beer: The day after the Strasburg debut, Loeb's delicatessen in downtown Washington started the Strasburg Three Strike Slider, which co-owner Steve Loeb said is the product of a joint effort of owners Dave, Marlene and Steve Loeb; the Burger Joint chain, based in Landsdowne, launched the Strasburger, which includes a hamburger, with a hot dog on top and 14 pickles honoring his record 14 strikeouts in his debut. "They are doing okay," said David Terry, manager of the Dupont Circle Burger Joint. Bo Blair, owner of the Bullpen beer garden across the street from the stadium, doubled his bartending staff from seven to 14, even bringing his wife and sister-in-law to work as the Bullpen set a record for beer sales, eclipsing sales during last year's Boston Red Sox games.

Odds and ends: The Nationals granted more than 200 media credentials for his debut, around four times the normal demand. Strasburg did the Top Ten List on "Late Show With David Letterman." The Strasburg debut (June 8) was up against Game 3 of the NBA Finals (ABC) and the season finale of "Glee" (Fox), and MASN was the third-most-watched network in Washington that night, beating out every other cable channel, NBC and CBS.

Metro: The transit agency on June 8 had its sixth-highest weekday ridership day in the history of the 34-year-old rail system; 856,578 one-way trips were recorded on the Metrorail system. Metro attributes the day's high ridership to the sellout crowd at the Strasburg debut and to the James Taylor/Carole King concert at the Verizon Center.

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