Through seven games, the Washington Nationals rank 20th out of 30 major league baseball clubs in terms of average attendance. They average less than 30,000 per game, including the opening day sell-out. The crowd for the second game ever in Nationals Park was the smallest crowd in a stadium's second game since the game's renaissance starting in 1992 with the opening of Baltimore's Camden Yards, covering 16 new stadiums. And here's the kicker: Average attendance so far is 5,400 less than 2005, the team's first season in Washington and when the team played in decrepit, run-down and depressing RFK Stadium.
Barry Svrluga in today's Post has a solid article discussing all these numbers and interviews several experts about the topic. Much has been written and said elsewhere about the attendance so far. Is the situation "half-empty" or "half-full"? Depends on your vantage.
Stan Kasten has said on several occasions, "We'll get the attendance we deserve." So far, that's about right. Washington may love their Redskins and sell out every game in the turd that is FedEx Field, but for the other sports, attendance depends on the product put on the field (or rink, or court). The Nats right now, to put it bluntly, stink. Their record stands at 4-9. They won their first three games, lost nine in a row, and broke that streak Sunday defeating the Braves.
They are 13th (out of 16) in the NL in runs scored. They are 13th in Home Runs. They are dead last in batting average and slugging percentage and 14th in on base percentage. They are 14th in stolen bases.
They have given up the most runs in the NL. They are 14th in team ERA and 13th in strikeouts. They are 4th in the league in walks allowed, tied for second in home runs allowed and 13th in team on base percentage against.
To be fair, their projected opening day line-up hasn't taken the field together. Wily Mo Pena, slated to start in left, just joined the team Sunday from the disabled list and Dmitri Young has two at bats for the season. But they concerns are piling up. Paul LoDuca hasn't hit (.200) and hasn't thrown out a base runner yet. Austin Kearns is hitting .238 with no homers. Despite his opening day heroics, Ryan Zimmerman is only hitting .236. Only Cristian Guzman (.322 with two homers) and Lastings Milledge (.308) are performing at or about expected levels.
But poor performance is only one of the many reasons fans aren't flocking to Nationals Park.
The weather has been, for the most part, miserable. No one can change that. But pundits have claimed that the NCAA basketball championship game had something to do with the small crowd for the Nats' second game. The basketball game didn't keep folks from going to baseball games in Arizona, Anaheim, New York, Houston, San Francisco, Chicago White Sox or Pittsburgh. All those venues drew more than 35,000 fans on the same evening Washington could only muster 20,487.
Nats warming up before April 7 game against Florida.
How about the traffic concerns? I think this is affecting the attendance, but in a completely different way than the organization and city expected.
I have attended all but one of the Nats' home games so far and have taken the Metro and driven. There are absolutely no traffic problems whatsoever around the stadium for game days. It's amazing. The fear campaign the Nats, the City and Metro conspired actually has worked to keep cars out of the area around the stadium. Most fans that are coming to the games are either taking Metro, which is good for everybody, or using the "Nats Express" shuttle from RFK's parking lots. For the most part, Metro has performed admirably, with extra staffers, announcers on the platforms directing folks, extra trains and so on. Even Friday night and Sunday afternoon with the Capitals playoff games (sell-outs, by the way) crowding the system even further, Metro came through with flying colors. And I have yet to hear a complaint with the Nats Express.
The problem then lies, I believe, with the division within Nationals' fan base. There are the die-hards who come no matter what, and the blue-bloods, the ones the Nats seem to cater to the most: those paying high prices for tickets in the lower level and those now infamous Presidential Club seats behind home plate. You know, the ones that on TV are completely empty game in and game out. Also, the ones that are supposed to buying up the suites, which are only 60% sold. This includes the thousands of seats bought up by corporations and law firms that go unused many nights.
People with money--real money, the type of money that can spend $325 per game for one seat or $125,000 for a suite--don't take Metro. Under any circumstances. There are plenty of people that work on the Hill and live in Dupont Circle (or Vienna, or Chevy Chase) and drive to work because they don't like taking the Metro. It's an elitist thing. What is undeniable is that there is a certain population that won't take public transportation anywhere, including to a sporting event. And that's the segment of the population the Nats need to get at the park, because it's those seats that are going unfilled.
Like I said, I've only missed one game so far. And the thing that strikes me most about the crowds so far is the sameness of each crowd. I've seen the same faces and same groups of people at every game. I've got access to tickets in a couple different sections, and god love 'em, the same people are there every night. So if the Nats are getting their best fans, the one that will be there no matter what (weather, other events, traffic, prices) at every game, then they really, REALLY, need to do a better job getting the privileged to the game, either by convincing them the area is safe to drive--because there are parking lots that are not even half-full surrounding the stadium--or by actually convincing them to use the Metro.
Because until they do that, attendance will stay right around where it is. Sure, when summer rolls around it'll be easier to take the kids. But those seats behind home plate will still be empty. And if a casual fan sees that on TV on the highlights, don't you think that leaves them with a less-than-happy feeling about what must be going on down at the old ball-yard? If the Nats can't put people in the best seats in the house, how do you expect them to fill the rest of the place.
Maybe they need to hire seat fillers like at the Oscars.
Where Is Everybody? also posted at DC Sports Box.
Photo (c) Cheryl Nichols 2008.
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