Where Is Everybody?

Posted by Dave Nichols | Tuesday, April 15, 2008 | | 15 comments »

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.


  1. GO // April 15, 2008 at 12:07 PM  

    I was at the Marlins game and the reason there was so many empties is because it was cold as hell. Thank God for the Red Porch. I was freezing my ass off!

    GO FLYERS!!!

  2. mdhokie // April 15, 2008 at 1:35 PM  

    It's not performance either. Look at the O's, currently in first place playing above expectations. They have few in the park too.

    I think it's partly due to the squabbling between owners, the steroids, and the weather that's creating apathy among fans in this area

  3. griff // April 15, 2008 at 1:40 PM  

    Is it the economy, stupid?

  4. Dave Nichols // April 15, 2008 at 1:51 PM  

    i don't think the ecomony has anything to do with it Griff. when was the last time you were on the Metro???

  5. Chris // April 15, 2008 at 4:51 PM  

    It's actually not a big deal. Boswell had a cogent discussion with Kornheiser today. It's at about the 45 minute mark of the podcast if you are so inclined (TK_PODCAST_20080415.mp3 at http://icestream.bonnint.net/dc/3wt/tony/podcast.php). He said that teams see a bump of about 37% in attendance the year after a new stadium. The Nats are around 33% and if you toss out opening day they are up 45% or so.

    The big issue is perception. It does look foolish to have those barcoloungers behind homeplate empty. But, beyond that, the Nats are doing just fine - they've seen an increase in attendance over last year.

    I went on Friday and I certainly wasn't blown away by the stadium. It had a bit too much of a minor league stadium feel - a playground, arcade and a Build-A-Bear store were the first few things I saw upon my entrance. It did have the militant ushers which made me feel like I was in Baltimore.

    But, in general, it's not a real problem. It's only a perceived problem.

  6. Dave Nichols // April 15, 2008 at 5:12 PM  

    Chris, all due respect, but if it's a percieved problem, then it's a problem. i heard Boz on TK this morning, and he can spin the numbers all he wants. you can't "throw out" opening day just because you want to make the percentages look higher.

    the truth is nobody can be happy with attendance the first seven games if they are being honest.

    it's a disappointment that there aren't bigger crowds, regardless of the reasons.

  7. kubacheck // April 15, 2008 at 5:51 PM  

    I'm not a Nat's fan, but as a baseball fan in general, I'd probably go to more games, but the travel time kills me.... I went to opening day, and driving from my house in Annapolis to RFK, picking up the shuttle, then walking to the stadium from the drop-off point, it was a 1h 15m journey.... reverse that, and it's 2 1/2 hours travel time.... so, I'd say that the new stadium isn't all that convenient for me.... I will go to some games, but it's definitely not a spur-of-the-moment "hey, lets go to a game tonight" place for me.....

  8. Chris // April 15, 2008 at 6:08 PM  

    I'm not a huge perception guy, so I understand my view is a bit slanted.

    That said, really, what is there to draw you to the stadium?

    Team? Fair to poor. Nothing exciting there.

    Players - Zimmerman is the 'face' of the team, but not exactly the most 'electric' personality.

    Things to do around the park? - Not there yet, maybe next year?

    The park itself? - Again, I felt as though I was in a minor league park than a major league park.

    Convenience and location? - I'm sure there are more than a few people who are staying away because of the perceived issues in the neighborhood. And some would rather drive, but feel they can't so they stay away from the Metro.

    All in all, it's a fair team with no star in a park that is OK, but not great where some people feel they don't want to or can't go.

    Camden was full because the casual fan came (the one who comes for the experience; to whom the game is secondary). Nats Park is getting the fan that brings pencils from home and scores the game. They are getting hardcore fans.

    And at this point, DC has 2 teams in the playoffs - and sure that many sports fans would rather spend $$$ to go to a playoff hockey or bball game than an early April Nats game.

  9. Dave Nichols // April 15, 2008 at 6:28 PM  

    Chris, i get all your points. i understand as well as anyone that the team isn't that good, despite Jim Bowden's best snake-oil descriptions.

    which is precisely why the team HAS TO do better in getting people in the ballpark and creating new fans. part of what the Nats have to sell is that the ballpark is THE place to be, since the actual team has little going for it right now. and seeing on TV that the place, especially the high-priced seat that are so obvious on tv, is half-empty? it gives the bad impression that it isn't the palce to be.

    it's like what lawyers say about trial: if you don't have the facts, argue the law. if you don't have the team, sell the stadium.

    YOU don't like the playground, build-a-bear, etc. i don't really have much use for it either. but if there are those that DO find that interesting, so be it.

    and i don't necessarily buy the argument about the Caps taking away Nats fans. they've had two home playoff games, and the Nats had two of their better attended games those days.

    i think the quirk in the schedule (one home game, then on the road for a week before the second game) really hurt, as did drawing the Marlins for the first series back.

    but they gotta get more people in there.

  10. Chris // April 15, 2008 at 6:34 PM  

    Oh, agreed. They need more folks there. I can't think of another ballpark that has empty seats behind home plate. You know I'm a sucker for numbers so Boz's argument resonates more with me than others.

    I wonder if it's a birth order thing. Think about the Nats as the 4th child in the family. There are no pictures of the 4th kid, they let the kid play in the dirt, put his fingers in the socket, etc. The family doted over kid #1 - didn't let his feet touch the floor, kept him away from everything.

    The Nats/O's comparison just won't work. The Nats are the 4th kid on the block. The O's were the 1st child in town in 1992. No Ravens at that point and the Blast and Skipjacks don't count. The O's had no one to compete with.

    The Nats have to 'compete' with the Caps, Wizards and Skins in some way, shape or form. I think that the Ravens had something to do with the drop in O's attendance (a small bit, but something).

    I think we'll need to revisit this once the weather turns and Caps/Bullets are out of the playoffs --- when the Nats are the only child left in the nest.

  11. Dave Nichols // April 15, 2008 at 6:49 PM  

    i'm down Chris. i definitely think attendance will pick up when the kiddies get out of school. and i get the 4th child analogy. in DC there's LOTS to pre-occupy, not just sports-wise.

    but it's not a good omen that in the recent history of attendance at new ballparks, Nationals Park had the lowest attendance of a second game ever.

    i wish more were done (and was being done) to rectify...other than Stan flailing his arms like Kevin Bacon's character in Animal House in the end of the movie where he's saying "Remain calm, all is well" and getting run over by the croud.

  12. The GREEN Move Guy // April 15, 2008 at 10:46 PM  

    An excellent set of observations! My family and I are becoming serious baseball fans. We love the Nats and we love our seats. We also love our parking garage. I think the media has in large part done the Nats and their new stadium a dis-service. Before we started attending games at the new park, we were concerned about the neighborhood and the "perceived" risks associated with walking to our car. Let me announce loudly, there is little or no risk!!! Between the police presense and the gentrification of the nearby streets it is a miraculous transformation of a previously blighted area of town. White folk, black folk and baseball fans of all color and creed can really enjoy themselves and feel safe in the aftermath. The city, metro and their police departments have done a great job of delivering safety! Stan and Jim haven't delivered the goods yet, a bland team, traded away Schneider for LoDorca. Frankly, Brian Schneider was more of a team leader and a TEAM FACE than the Zimmerster will probably ever become.

  13. jacksarmy // April 16, 2008 at 9:21 AM  

    First of all, it's only 7 games out of 81. Second, the Nat's average attendance is up almost 7000/game to this point in the year. If that keeps up, it means an increase of over 1/2 a million for the season. Between the lack of long term history, poor field play, cold weather, and preconcieved ideas about the neighborhood & traffic, I think they are doing very well.

  14. Anonymous // April 16, 2008 at 9:58 PM  

    Green Move Guy.... it's not the media who's done any disservice.... the Nat's themselves, and everyone else associated with the team, are the ones saying "Don't drive to the stadium, take metro, shuttle, etc..." do you think the all encompassing "media" cares how you get there??....

  15. Let Teddy Win the Presidents Race // April 16, 2008 at 10:33 PM  

    Thanks Dave. I agree the empty seats behind the plate are embarrassing. It's time the team starts giving them away or discounting them on an individual game basis until the day comes when they can sell them.

    Adding to this discussion, I've pointed out that the team needs to kill its own negative ad campaign. They are driving people away from Nationals Park.