Report Card from Inaugural NatsFest and Winter Caravan

Posted by Dave Nichols | Sunday, January 25, 2009 | , | 11 comments »

I'm not going to transcribe any of the proceedings, but since I attended most of the events, and interviewed people that went to the other events, the following is a review and report card on the Winter Caravan and NatsFest, in time-line fashion.

As a caveat, I didnt attend these events to be a reporter, I went as a fan. The actual baseball-realted content was minimal compared to the P.R. aspect of the events. Casual fans got to hear the message straight from Stan Kasten and Jim Bowden. That's great. But they didn't say anything all weekend they haven't been saying in the papers and various electronic outlets all winter long, therefore I did not feel the need to take my tape recorder and parse each and every statement.

I did, however, appreciate all the fans--and bloggers--that did get up and ask a question trying to get straight answers from the braintrust.

It's great that the Nats put forth the effort to do this for the fans. It's something that's been missing from the experience and this event can go a long way in growing the fan base. There were definite hits, and some big misses, but overall the experience was positive and a strong first attempt in what was surely a monumental task.
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Thursday afternoon, Martinsburg Mall, Martinsburg, WV: Manager Manny Acta and Joel Hanrahan went out to WV to try to convert some Pirates and Yankees fans. There was a mild reception (40-50 people) for the first leg of the caravan, and most of the folks that stopped by were in the mall already. A nice effort for the Nats to get (way) out of town with some marketing, but probably not worth the carbon footprint it took to get out there. GRADE: C-

Thursday evening, Harris Teeter Supermarket, Rockville, MD: Closer to the traditional market for the Washington team. Another tepid reception for another corporate partner though, with only a small handful of folks that were there just to see the Nats. Most of the folks that got an autograph were there shopping already. Again, it was the Manny and Hanny show. GRADE: C

Friday lunchtime, Hot Stove Luncheon, Nationals Park: The Nats packed 250 season ticket holders into assigned seating in a big conference room at Nats Park for lunch and a panel discussion/Q&A. Hosted by radio broadcaster Charlie Slowes and Meet the Press host David Gregory, the chicken was cold but the discussion was pretty warm. Stan Kasten, Jim Bowden, Mike Rizzo and Manny Acta took some softballs from Gregory (nice touch having him there), then faced fastballs from the fans.

The highlight? Frank Howard got up and recounted his famous story about making eight outs in seven at bats in a double-header in Boston, and receiving a standing ovation from the Fenway faithful.

The lowlight? None of the players assembled and seated at the tables for lunch (John Lannan, Terrell Young, Willie Harris, Steven Shell, Hanrahan) signed autographs except at the table they were seated, and they were all ushered out as soon as lunch was complete. Frank Howard signed for everyone. GRADE: B

Friday afternoon, Build-a-Bear Shop, Annapolis Mall, Annapolis, MD: The gang assembled for lunch trucked out to Annapolis (as deep into Orioles territory as they dared) to the Nats corporate partner Build-a-Bear. They all made their own bears and apparently had a great time doing so. Again, there weren't a whole lot of folks there just to see the Nats, but there was some good mall traffic that stopped in, accounts of 125-150 people all told. Friday at 4 pm probably wasn't the best time for this event, maybe a Saturday morning when kids might be at the mall. But a solid effort here. Who knew teddy bears were such a big draw for nats fans? GRADE: B-

Friday night, Nats Top Chef Cook-off, ESPN Zone, downtown DC: Willie Harris proved, once again, that he can do anything, as he took the title of Nats Top Chef at a cook-off with another corporate partner. Wee Willie defeated Garrett Mock and teams of Hanrahan/Lannan and Young/Shell. There were probably only 50 or so fans there for the event. Most there were connected in some way with a member of the Natosphere. I asked a bunch of folks at NatsFest if they knew about his event. None did. GRADE: B-

Saturday morning, Pfitzner Stadium, Woodbridge, VA: A two-hour line of people (roughly 200 people) braved the wind and cold Saturday morning to run a gauntlet of Nationals for autographs and pictures. Hanrahan, Harris, Young, Mock, Scott Olsen, Lannan, Shell, Mike O'Connor and Acta signed and Ryan Zimmerman posed for photos. More on Zim later. The quality operation of the Potomac Nationals even provided free lunch of BBQ and dogs. Other than the unavoidable forcing of fans to stand in the cold, this was an excellent event. GRADE: A-

Saturday afternoon, AMF Kegler's Lanes, Charlottesville, VA: This, however, was a terrible event. After the P-Nats event, they loaded everyone on a bus and went to Charlottesville, VA, home of the University of VA, Zim's alma mater. According to sources, the place was difficult to find and unpleasant once there. There were about 20 people total there to see the Nationals' contingent. My witness said there were more players, team employees and media than fans. The players bowled for 40 minutes and left. GRADE: F

Saturday night, Red, Hot & Blue Restaurant, Richmond, VA: Another corporate partner sponsored event, my sources said there were probably 225 folks there for autographs, a line that stretched from inside the restaurant to outside on the sidewalk in the sub-freezing temperatures. There were reports that folks at the end of the line didn't even actually get in, or got cut off at some point.

My source spoke to Zimmerman inside and asked him why he couldn't sign, and Zim replied that due to a marketing arrangement he could not sign at an organized function, but that he could sign if he was, say, walking to his car or bus. Thus, after they got everyone elses autographs, they then went outside and waited at the front door of the bus where Zim did sign for them and a few other people as they were leaving. They might have been the only handful of autographs Zim was "able" to give all weekend. GRADE: B

Sunday afternoon, NatsFest, Nationals Park, southeast DC: LOTS of people came to the inaugural NatsFest at Nationals Park. Initial reports have the number at 7,000 tickets sold, and I believe every word of it. There were people everywhere.

There were two hour lines to get a picture with Zim. Heck, there was an hour line to get an autograph from Terrell Young, a guy that might not even make the team. The Q&A's with folks like George Will, Phil Wood and various members of the Nats braintrust packed the PNC Diamond Club.

The clubhouse was open and you could pay to take hacks in the batting cages. There was an excellent exhibit on the Negro Leagues, and for the first time all weekend, the team store was open and had items for sale.

But the primary objective for most of the fans were the autographs and pictures, and the lines were just ridiculous. There were many suggestions that they should have separated the players instead of having just one autograph stage.

But the idea that the "face of the franchise" was contractually prohibited from signing was a HUGE problem. Try telling an eight-year old that Ryan Zimmerman couldn't sign his glove. It ended in tears.

The team should have paid an appearance fee or whatever to the entity prohibiting Ryan from signing. Absolutely disgraceful performance. It left Ryan visibly uncomfortable having to explain to fans why he couldn't sign at a team event.

Elijah Dukes and Josh Willingham joined the other players at the event.

GRADE: B
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Overall, I think the festivities suffered from a condition the Nationals have had since they moved into their new digs last season. They have grand plans and dream really big about things like this, but the planning, marketing and execution just don't quite meet the mark.

There were big problems with some of the locations they chose, especially the farthest reaching locations. There were problems with some of the venues not being properly equipped to handle the crowds or subjecting fans to the bitter winter temperatures outside. And you can't fault the team for working with its corporate partners, but it got a little over-bear-ing. Sorry for the pun.

NatsFest itself was fairly successful. Everyone really enjoyed the Q&As, especially when Bowden admitted that Robert Fick texts him once a week looking for a job. Having attended many of the events, I heard the same message over and over again from Kasten and Bowden, which was: "We think we're doing this the right way. We WANT to add players but they have to be at the right (lowest possible) price. We think people will like the new things at the ballpark this year."

At the end of the day, some of the missing or incomplete elements would have gone a LONG way in making what was a decent event into a terrific event. Hopefully the team will take a long look at everything and make some tweaks for next season.

OVERALL GRADE: B-

Photos (c) C. Nichols 2009

11 comments

  1. Greg // January 26, 2009 at 12:09 PM  

    my brother-in-law and I went to the event in Richmond and were pleasantly surprised by the turnout. We showed up around 6:15 and immediately got in line outside the restaurant. Both of us were expecting a smaller crowd of fans as well as a reduced number of players available for autographs. RH&B seemed to be handling things kind of "on-the-fly" but overall I think it went fairly well. I found Terrell Young and Manny Acta to be the most outgoing, with TY genuinely seeming to enjoy the experience as much as the fans. They also had a heck of a time getting Teddy and George into the place through the front doors, but I think their presence helped cheer up some of the folks who were still stuck outside in the cold (they mingled outside for a few minutes before coming in).

  2. Dave Nichols // January 26, 2009 at 12:14 PM  

    Greg, thanks for the report. the Richmond event was one of the ones i just couldn't get to, but i did have friends there. they had a similar experience to yours.

  3. denise // January 26, 2009 at 1:42 PM  

    Dave,

    I think you pretty much captured the essence of the entire caravan. And you are right, the press, marketing people, and team employees outnumbered the fans at many of the outlying events.

    As far as the NATSfest goes, you forgot to mention that there were only 2 people scanning tickets when the gates opened. It took 45-60minutes to get into the park. Tell me how NATS Mgmt can estimate 7000 attendees and have only 2 ticket scanners at the gates for the first 35 minutes?

    There were some fun aspects to Natsfest, and I expected lines, but some were just ridiculously long. To do it right you really need to be able to utilize the outside too and you can't do that in the winter.

  4. Dave Nichols // January 26, 2009 at 1:59 PM  

    thanks Denise. i did forget about that. they really could have had more than just two ticket takers at the beginning. i read somewhere this morning they eventually did open another gate after they saw all the folks lined up just to get in.

    i think after this year and the response at the big event Sunday they'll look to move the event to the convention center or somewhere better equipped to handle staging muliple long lines.

  5. Anonymous // January 26, 2009 at 5:47 PM  

    Dave - I asked Ryan for a signature while I was getting my picture taken and he said this year he chose to do something more fan friendly and take photos. Probably next year he will sign autographs.

    His memorabilia company was selling baseballs in the President's Club for about the cost of the baseball plus the case so it was like getting the autograph for free. I got a Ryan Zimmerman bat signed by Zimm for $70 plus tax which was a steal.

    Very pleased as wehere do you get the chance to take a photo with Zimm! A+

  6. Dave Nichols // January 26, 2009 at 7:26 PM  

    Anonymous, i'm glad you had a positive experience. it's great that you got a picture with him. the photo opportunites were probably the best part of the show Sunday.

    but in my opinion, it's a BIG problem that the "face of the franchise" couldn't sign autographs at a team sponsored event.

  7. Anonymous // January 27, 2009 at 9:31 AM  

    Here is a great site that compiles FanFest info so you can see how much other teams charge for admission as well as what the Cardinals, Braves and Brewers players charge for autographs.

    Somebody wrote on another site that Pujols was $75 and in fact he is $175 and will only sign balls and photos that you have to supply.

    www.sportsgatherings.com/tag/fanfest/

  8. Dave Nichols // January 27, 2009 at 1:32 PM  

    anon, that's not surprising. the world of autograph collecting is big business. it's just crummy that Zim wasn't available AT ALL for autographs during the team sponsored event.

    i guess one of the benefits of sucking is that the Nats don'thave anyone as big as Pujols to have to worry about charging at fanfest.

    i did see the Brewers were charging for all their players. that's a crime. at least the Nats had good sense to provide their players free of charge.

  9. Maryland Orioles' Fan // January 27, 2009 at 3:18 PM  
    This comment has been removed by the author.
  10. Maryland Orioles' Fan // January 27, 2009 at 3:19 PM  

    Interesting note about the autographs, Anon. I guess in our part of the world, most teams do not charge fans for autographs at team sponsored events.

    As well, I guess a point to ask is do the autograph proceeds go to directly to the players or their personal/team charity?

    It just sucks for kids who stand in line -- some for well over an hour -- expecting something and to be told it's not going to happen.

    I could care less as a 30 year old, but I empathize towards the little ones.

  11. Anonymous // January 27, 2009 at 4:35 PM  

    Dave - I agree with the free autographs is a great thing and seems to be popular so they can do what the White Sox do and charge a few bucks more so all players can sign for free and the team can reimburse the player's agent for their contractual autograph fee or the team can eat the fee. It can't be too much I would think for Zimm to sign 1,000 balls.

    In any event like this or just taking your kids to the ballpark, I think you need to set your child's expectations.

    The Nats schedule said Zimm was doing Photos so I figured he might not sign autographs.

    I took my youngest 2 kids and told them they were going to get a photo with Ryan Zimmerman. My son did want an autograph of his and I told him I would get that at another time. We waited over 45 minutes for a photo which is FANtastic and never would have had this opportunity anywhere to get a photo of their favorite player like this anywhere.

    By luck, after the batting cages we went to the Presidents Club and Zimm's marketing company from Florida was there and we got 2 autographed photos.

    I think everyone should send a suggestion to the Nats to get Zimm next year to sign for free and for at least 3 hours as I would expect it will take him that long to sign for everyone there.