Nationals Park, sparsely attended last season
Even with a $611 million public investment, back in 2004-2005 there was a lot of talk by baseball boosters in the D.C. area that droves of fans coming from northern Virginia would spend their discretionary income in and around the new ballpark for the Washington Nationals, thus off-setting the public outlay.
The problem is, you have to have fans come to the games for that model to work.
And while the lack of development around the ballpark is not entirely the Nationalsâ€™ fault, the development of the team (or lack, thereof) has created a losing effort that makes anything MLB or Jeffery Loria put together in Montreal look like the 2000-era Yankees.
After coming off a league worst 59-102 (.366) record last season, the team has come out of the gate in 2009 with all the electricity of a 5-watt bulb, amassing a 1-10 (.091) record.
Not that it needed further prodding after last season, but attendance watching for the Nationals is going to be a regular affair if the bleeding in the standings doesnâ€™t stop.
Take yesterdayâ€™s game against the Marlins, for example. The team from Florida, with the leagueâ€™s lowest Opening Day payroll at $36,834,000, are off to a torrid start at 11-1. And yet on a Sunday, attendance at Nationals Park was below 17,000 (16,974, to be exact).
Mind you, this wasnâ€™t the lowest attended game of the day (that dubious distinction goes to the Piratesâ€™ PNC Park at 14,776 against the Braves), but apparently, the honeymoon period on the brand new Nationals Park that opened last year went from newlyweds with the fans, straight to estranged.
As Nationals president, Stan Kasten said last week, he understands that the abysmal play on the field is directly tied to how much interest fans in D.C. will have in his team.
â€śAs you all know, Iâ€™m philosophical about attendance,â€ť Kasten said. â€śWe get the attendance we deserve. Until we get the product to be where we want it to be, we are not going to be selling out every night. If we give the fans a reason to support us, they will be here in droves.â€ť
Thatâ€™s why todayâ€™s signing of Ryan Zimmerman to a long-term contract is a step in the right direction. Is it the deciding step? Certainly not, but it is at least a step.
Sundayâ€™s attendance figure is simply a warning of worse to come given that it fell on a weekend. Attendance for the Nationals was 29,005 (ranked 19th out of 30) for last season, meaning that unless magic lands on Acta and Kastenâ€™s doorstep and they start winning with any regularity, the Nationals will assuredly be below an average of 29,000. Itâ€™s early in the season, but for 5 games at Nationals Park, the Nats are drawing an average of 23,348, or 26th out of the 30 clubs. If the losing continues, averaging 26,000 for the season may be a reach.
Much of this is a byproduct of former GMâ€™s Jim Bowdenâ€™s handiwork. But, Kasten being an apologist for the fans in D.C. removes that fact that, supposedly, the large market and years of pining for a club to fill the vacuum that the Senators (Take 2) left when they sauntered off to Arlington, would mean a dedicated fan base, regardless of how poorly the team played. At least from an attendance perspective, thereâ€™s little difference from how the Expos drew in Montreal. Except for the fact that based on league average, the Expos drew better in Jarry Park their first two seasons (1969-'70) than the Nationals will have done in Nationals Park over the same two-year period.
Maury Brown is the Founder and President of the Business of Sports Network, which includes The Biz of Baseball, The Biz of Football, The Biz of Basketball and The Biz of Hockey. He is contributor to Baseball Prospectus, and is available as a freelance writer. Brown's full bio is here. He looks forward to your comments via email and can be contacted through the Business of Sports Network.
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