The cost of building a new MLB team? Sometimes, it’s the fans who loved the old one.

The Nationals open their season on Thursday against the Braves. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
11 min

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — One morning in early March, Scott Ableman, two friends and two others, all die-hard Washington Nationals fans, sat on bleachers by a backfield at the team’s spring training facility, talking about the past and present. They had watched drills start and finish. They were waiting around to see minor leaguers play. So to kill time, they debated whether 2023 promised to be like the Nationals’ 2010, when the club improved by 10 wins — a seismic jump in those days — and showed a sign or two of life.

They tried to remember their feelings heading into that season. And they wondered, as any sane human does every once in a while, how many games Yunesky Maya started that year.

“The answer was five,” Ableman recalled. “In a lot of ways, we agreed 2010 is a good comparison for right now just because it feels like they are working toward something but not exactly close to it yet. But 2010 had Ryan Zimmerman. It had Liván Hernández leading the staff. It had Stephen Strasburg on the way.”

He paused to think, perhaps to count the plate appearances for Alberto González (198) and Kevin Mench (29) from 13 years ago.

“I don’t know,” Ableman continued. “There’s excitement for the young core coming together. But the team still has so much to prove. There’s a long way to go.”

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On one hand is Washington’s team on the field, another collection of unproven and inexperienced players, a rebuilding group that lost 107 games in 2022 and will add about $17 million in new guaranteed salaries to its payroll. On the other, though, is the team at large, an organization struggling to generate revenue and attract fans as it once did.

The baseball and the business are linked — and linked closely — because the on-field product is what the business side has to sell. But through conversations with more than a dozen fans — plus five current and former employees with knowledge of the club’s financials — it’s clear they are mutually frustrated by, in their words, the team not adapting its prices or marketing to the situation.

Most fans said they want more promotions to ease the financial strain of parking, paying for a ticket and eating and drinking to watch a club that went 26-55 at home last year. Ten asked for a better ballpark experience, whether that means additions, improvements or fewer snags with the concession stands and mobile pay system. And above all, they want prices for tickets, parking and food to better reflect the quality of play and lowered investment in the roster.

“I’ve gone down from 20 games to 15 to 10 just because I don’t think the product is worth it and it’s not an enjoyable experience right now,” said Jesse Roach, who has had partial season tickets since 2017 and used to attend almost every home game. “They are not operating as if they are a very bad team, because very bad teams have cooler promotions, they do more to engage the fans, they do quirky things. They are charging as if they are a team that just won the World Series, and they are not that at all.”

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As the team’s record worsened in recent years, the price of many seats steadily increased, though the cost of most season plans did stay the same from 2022 to 2023. Still, a “significant number” of season plan holders did not renew, according to two people familiar with the situation, and attendance is expected to dip considerably. A team spokeswoman declined to provide year-to-year specifics for season plan holders. But full season plan holders are counted in the paid attendance of every game, and Washington’s lowest attendance of 2022 was 9,261 for the first leg of a doubleheader in mid-April.

In 2019, the year the Nationals won the World Series, their lowest single-game attendance was 14,628. In 2018, it was 19,357. Last season, just nine teams had a lower single-game figure, suggesting that Washington’s season plan holder base is going in the wrong direction.

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It has been almost a year since the Lerner family announced they would explore a sale of the franchise. General Manager Mike Rizzo and Manager Dave Martinez are in the final year of their contracts. Even the sunniest fans, the ones who promise to show up now matter what, are bothered by a lack of transparency on how the club will be run moving forward and who will run it. A handful of corporate sponsors also have ditched the club, according to three people with knowledge of the matter, and the team does not make money on its stadium naming rights or with a jersey patch.

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Light crowds

Nationals spokeswoman Jen Giglio declined to make anyone from the team’s business side available for an interview. In a statement, she highlighted ongoing promotions such as Value Days (discounts for fans attending the game, including on tickets and concessions) and Kids Eat Free for select games. She added that the team is continuing those promotions because “economic times are tough and we know our fans have a choice when it comes to where they spend their entertainment dollars.”

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Washington has planned eight Value Days in 2023, two more than last year. The Nationals will bring back $5 day-of tickets and offer a “Nats Pass” that includes standing room only for every game for $5. There are also extra benefits for season plan holders, including a more flexible ticket exchange policy, a preseason gift box and guaranteed bobbleheads for full- and half-season plans. Overall, the promotional schedule has 58 special ticket events compared with 57 last year.

“They continue to be in this liminal space, and so much of the fan experience is projecting the narrative,” said Ellen Clair Lamb, a longtime fan. “And it becomes impossible if we do not know that Dave Martinez is going to be around next year, that Mike Rizzo is going to be around next year, that these players that they acquired last year in hopes of developing them long term, that we’ll ever actually see them play in a Nationals uniform.”

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Crowds at spring training, for exhibitions and workouts, were far smaller than in pre-pandemic years. During morning sessions in West Palm Beach, sometimes crowds did not exist at all. In late February, a team official stared at an empty patch of grass, a space where fans and autograph seekers had packed and shouted for players in the past, and said, “This is how it’s going to look during the regular season.”

The Nationals finished 2022 with a paid attendance of 2,026,401, which was their lowest mark since 2011, not counting years with pandemic restrictions. That ranked 17th in the majors and fourth in the National League East. But because that number counts tickets sold, not just people who pushed through the turnstiles, the total does not come close to reflecting how many actually attended games.

“We really don’t want to go under 2 million because that tells us we’re in a very rough spot with the fan base and the money we generate — or don’t — on top of tickets when people are physically in the park,” said a team official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to take part in interviews.

‘It pains me’

A week ahead of Opening Day against the Atlanta Braves, a fan could purchase six seats together in 50 sections at Nationals Park. This was during a flash sale that cut ticket prices in half. But Ray Mitten will be there, just as he has been there for every Nationals home opener that fans could attend.

Mitten has had season tickets since the team arrived from Montreal in 2005. He remembers 102 losses in 2008, 103 in 2009 and how, after losing the Senators as a kid, it still always seemed better than having no baseball at all. In this way, he’s representative of many fans, the ones who will support the team, dollars in hand, regardless of who plays third base or left field. Yet he is more energized by the current roster, especially because it is no longer filled with stopgap veterans such as Nelson Cruz, César Hernández, Maikel Franco and Alcides Escobar.

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“It’s hard to get excited for guys who are just caretakers for a spot that won’t be theirs in a year or even a few months,” Mitten said. “That’s how I feel about ownership, too, because we just don’t know what’s going on. But I can’t wait to watch CJ Abrams, Luis García, those types of players. It can be fun to see a team grow. We’ve done it before.”

Said Rizzo, the GM, when speaking about his young core at the start of spring training: “The landscape of the franchise kind of develops over the course of the year. We’ll see where these guys are, what steps forward or backward they take. We’ll take account of what their timetable looks like. It kind of mirrors what we did back in ’09, ’10 and ’11.”

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To Mitten’s point, the fan base has done this before, though now it’s being asked to again in a far different context. To Rizzo’s, the parallels to ’09, ’10 and ’11 are only comforting if the coming year is closer to 2010 than 2009, when the total attendance was 1,817,226. And that circles back to Ableman’s debate with his friends at spring training, when they couldn’t quite agree on there being the same promise Zimmerman and Strasburg once offered.

Another key difference: Back then, former Nationals weren’t crushing it around the NL. Juan Soto is with the San Diego Padres, Max Scherzer pitches for the New York Mets, and Trea Turner is the latest star to join the Philadelphia Phillies.

“Of course it pains me to be reminded of how recently this team was great,” said Ableman, who has been satisfied with the pricing at Nationals Park. “Fans can understand trading Soto, and I do while being really bummed it came to that.”

If 2009 was the worst year in club history, at least until 2022 happened, then 2010 was the first movement toward contention, highlighted by Strasburg’s 14-strikeout debut — plus the Nationals drafting a catcher named Bryce Harper — before Strasburg’s elbow blew out and he had Tommy John surgery. This spring offered similar lessons in patience. Cade Cavalli, one of the team’s top pitching prospects, underwent Tommy John surgery this month and will miss the season. Strasburg, still in the middle of a seven-year, $245 million deal, did not make it to Florida because of ongoing complications from surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome. FanGraphs gives the Nationals a 0.2 percent chance of making the playoffs.

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But there has been some good mixed in. Keibert Ruiz signed an eight-year, $50 million extension and could be the club’s catcher for the next decade. Abrams and García, both 22, are finding a rhythm in the middle of the infield. The Nationals hold the No. 2 pick in this summer’s draft, meaning they will soon add a promising young player. And every glimpse of prospects James Wood, Elijah Green and Brady House is a reminder of what could be — and how much the team needs to go right from here.

“The goodwill from fans has worn really, really thin,” Roach said. “Yeah, you can regain trust, but it won’t be easy given the last few years.”