A fan waits for the game to start between the Nationals and the White Sox on Tuesday. (Will Newton/Getty Images)
Sports columnist

The Washington Nationals begin their longest homestand of the year Thursday night against Arizona, with important division series next week against Philadelphia and Atlanta. They arrive home at a perfect time to create buzz at the ballpark: Winners of 12 of their past 17 games, they’re getting dangerously close to creeping back into the National League East race. School is letting out, so young fans with hopes their team is returning to the pennant race easily could be lured to Nationals Park.

But in what numbers? People just aren’t showing up at Nationals Park at the rates of recent years. Through 30 home dates, attendance is down 1,899 fans per game through the same number of games in 2018. The club’s average crowd of 27,834 is the lowest — either through 30 home games or over the entire season — since 2011. That’s before there were any division titles. That’s before mentioning the World Series seemed even remotely reasonable.

What’s going on?

“That’s certainly a fair question,” said Jake Burns, in his first year as the Nats’ executive vice president for business operations. “We’re obviously seeing the same numbers. They are what they are. But in some ways, I think we anticipated that.”

There are, of course, explanations. Burns said attendance is dependent on a litany of factors: the team’s performance, the weather, whether a bobblehead is handed out, etc. But this drop from last year’s full season average of 31,230, Burns said, was predictable for two additional reasons. Last July, the Nats hosted the All-Star Game, an event that usually leads to an increase in overall attendance, both because of ticket-buying incentives teams offer and general enthusiasm around the game. Plus, 2018 was, as Burns said, “a season of very high expectations that weren’t necessarily met,” which is something of an understatement.

This all fits under a couple of larger umbrellas: Major League Baseball’s declining attendance, which is due to drop for the fifth consecutive season, and the decreasing numbers of people who attend live sporting events, period. The NFL is down. College football is down a lot. Start spitting out the reasons: It’s expensive, HD TV is so good, it’s expensive, it’s time-consuming, and it’s expensive. Also, it costs a lot.

There’s also the question of whether actual attendance matters to the overall health of a franchise. As MLB says, “Attendance is one aspect of overall fan engagement.” The turnstiles may stall, but revenues continue to increase, more than $10 billion for MLB last year. Some of that is from media deals with regional sports networks, MASN and the like. Some is from baseball’s smart development of its advanced media, including its website and app, much of which it sold to Disney for a cool $1.58 billion. You’re not buying a $50 seat or even $20 seat? Fine. Owners have other ways of raking in cash.

MLB said Wednesday attendance is down between 1 and 2 percent from early June a year ago. So the Nats are hardly unique. According to attendance data at baseball-reference.com, the Nationals are one of 19 franchises whose numbers are down from the same point a year ago, and they don’t even have one of the biggest drops. The Blue Jays and Giants are each down more than 6,000 per game; the Orioles, more than 4,000; and the Tigers and Royals, more than 3,000 each.

Still, I find Nats attendance interesting on a lot of levels. Executives at MLB, through the years, have pondered it, too. The Washington metropolitan area is the sixth-most populous in the country, even excluding Baltimore. It is both affluent and educated, which fits baseball’s demographic. The club has poured money into payroll, won four division titles in seven years and produced stars.

And yet, in 15 seasons, the Nats have never cracked MLB’s top 10 in attendance. Indeed, the club has never drawn more than the 2.73 million who filed into RFK Stadium in 2005, the summer baseball returned to town. Their highest rank in attendance: 11th, several times.

Why does this matter?

“It’s really important for the guys on the field to have a building full of fans supporting them,” Burns said.

Makes sense. Plus, such an environment could help lure a star to stay. This is not a column on the offseason departure of Bryce Harper or the dire need for the Nats to re-sign Anthony Rendon. But if you want to hold on to the fans who are buying tickets . . .

Nationals officials wouldn’t discuss their season ticket base, either in specific numbers or as 2019 relates to past seasons, which fits with industry norms. But keep in mind that the season ticket base is the floor for any single baseball game because the attendance that’s announced isn’t for people through the gate; rather, it’s for tickets sold. The result: The smallest announced crowd of the year can’t be smaller than the season ticket base.

Therein lie some clues about the direction of the Nationals’ core. Since 2012, the year the team won its first NL East title, the Nats have had just two crowds lower than 18,000: a September date against Atlanta in 2016 and April 29 of this season against St. Louis, when just 17,890 tickets were sold. Here’s a guess, and that’s all it is: Given there were no crowds that small in 2017 or 2018 (or, for that matter, 2013-15 either), I’m betting the season ticket base is down from those years.

(A small diversion: At some level, hand-wringing about Nats crowds requires perspective. The Capitals get credit for a sellout streak that’s a decade long, and they should. But their sellout at Capital One Arena is 18,506 fans. I’m sure I’ve described that building on those nights as “packed.” Put the same number of people at Nationals Park, and you would say it’s some version of “empty.” Since the 2013 season, the Nats have played 516 home games. Exactly four of them have had crowds smaller than a Caps sellout — and baseball plays nearly twice as many home games as hockey. So take all this for what it’s worth.)

So what will we see over the next 11 days, when the Nats could further chip into the advantages held by both the Braves and the Phillies in the division race? Burns said the club is reacting to public input by offering “flexibility and affordability,” ways for fans to buy seats at multiple games for discounts and with the ability to choose from a variety of dates. Saturday is “Star Wars Day,” and the bobblehead is of “Obi-Sean Kenobi,” in honor of resident Star Wars geek and incumbent closer Sean Doolittle. Who could resist?

“The more enthusiasm the better,” Burns said. “Look, at the end of the day, it’s 81 games, and we’re coming up with really creative things to get people out here. We’re really trying to listen to our fans.”

To me, it seems clear. The fans are saying: Win baseball games. This year’s team is starting to comply. How many people show up to see that effort bears watching as a data point that helps determine the health of the sport in this town.

For more by Barry Svrluga, visit washingtonpost.com/svrluga.