WASHINGTON As this season has progressed Nationals attendance has exploded, rising each month until it has now surpassed even the most optimistic preseason estimates. This barely noticed trend has profound implications for the sport's future here.
For the last five home stands, since a June run to first place captured this area's affection, the Nats have averaged 37,097 fans over 29 games, far in excess of the major league average of 30,000 that team president Tony Tavares set as a goal in March. If this pattern of crowds in the 36,000-to-37,000 range holds true for the entire '06 season, then Washington may, in a stunningly brief time, move from the status of an "average" team to becoming one of the "crown jewel" franchises of the sport.
If a September wild-card race draws even larger crowds and the Nats' most recent RFK homestand averaged 38,721 -- then the town that baseball spurned for a third of a century may eventually set the pro sports record for saying, "We told you so." The world champion Boston Red Sox are drawing 35,155 a game this year. The beloved Chicago Cubs average 38,904. The San Diego Padres , in first place and playing in a new ballpark, are pulling in 36,102 fans, a total that's considered a huge success. And the San Francisco Giants, playing in the game's most rapturously gorgeous retro park, average 39,228 a game.
Excluding the mega-markets in New York and Los Angeles, these teams are the gold standard for baseball popularity. They are the sport's "must protect" franchises. Their ability to draw between 35,000 and 39,000 fans is their benchmark of success.
Back in April on Opening Day in Washington, no one in baseball seriously imagined that the Nationals might move into such exalted company so quickly. Perhaps someday, if all the stars aligned perfectly when the team moved into a new $540-million ballpark. But certainly not while the Nats were playing in antiquated, amenity-free Robert F. Kennedy. Surely not when the team's disgraceful disservice of a TV deal prevented roughly half of the team's fans from watching about half of the Nats games. And not before the team even had a new owner who could presumably increase the club's payroll by at least 50 percent.
Yet the response to the Nationals from Washington-area fans, especially the steady month-to-month increases, may be more surprising and impressive than the team's winning play on the field. The $48-million-payroll Nats, as everyone knows, have their limits. But what are Washington's limits as a baseball town? That is the new question that's suddenly come out of left field.
Baseball thought it had Washington all figured out back in April. After the predictable Opening Day sellout of 45,596, the gate at the next dozen games was 29,718. This number rang a symbolic bell throughout the sport because it is exactly, within a fraction of a percent, the average attendance for the whole sport. (At the moment, '05 average MLB attendance is 29,802.) A consensus view was quickly formed. Washington attendance might pick up slightly, as it does with most team, in the summer months when warm weather and school vacations help everybody's gate. Maybe, with luck, the Nats could get close to the level of financially robust teams like the Braves (31,862), Rangers (32,128) and Orioles (32,599). Clubs like the Phils (33,699) and Astros (34,424), with new parks, fat payrolls and contending teams, seemed well out of reach.
But that's not what happened.
Here is the average attendance for the Nationals nine home stands this season, excluding Opening Day.
April 16 through May 1.
The more the Washington area has been exposed to the Nats and RFK Stadium, the more people have returned to buy the product again. The Nats' average attendance for the whole season is now up to 34,370. Those Braves, Rangers and Orioles are now in the rear-view mirror. The Nats are 11th in the sport in attendance -- but with a very large bullet. Washington's rank has risen all season as the team's popularity has caught fire. By next week, Washington will pass Houston to reach the Top 10.
If, in its last two home stands, Washington continues to draw at the 37,097 rate of the last five home stands, then the Nats average attendance will be over 35,000 by the end of the year -- or 5,000-a-game more than Tavares hope/prediction. Since the average customer spends about $30 a night at the ballpark, that means the Nats' revenue base, strictly from home attendance, will be about $12 million a season more than expected.
Who knows, the Nats may even outdraw Boston! It'll be close. Granted, Red Sox Nation pays higher prices in a park that's always sold out. Still, who'd have believed, in the season when a World Series banner flew over Fenway Park for the first time in 86 years, that Washington, a town that had been denied a team for 33 seasons, might actually put more fannies in the seats.
What's most fascinating about the Nats' attendance is not the raw numbers, high as they are, but the ever-upward trend of those totals. Last week's crowds of 38,721 arrived even though the Nats had been in a (15-27) slump for eight weeks and fallen from first place to last in the NL East. The eight potential buyers for this team have to ask themselves, "How high is up?"
How many fans will come when the Nationals (someday, oh Lord) get a normal TV deal that provides the kind of universal nightly exposure that drives attendance in every other city? What happens if the games are put on a radio station whose signal strength isn't a bad joke? What if the Nats recruit the kind of sophisticated, humorous radio announcers that add audience in comparable cities with high-education, high-income demographics like Los Angeles, New York, Frisco and Boston?
What is the value at the gate of New Hope in '06 -- in the form of one or two free agent stars, especially hitters? And, of course, what ultimately will the crowds look like in the new 41,000-seat ballpark that is planned for the Southeast waterfront?
Those involved with baseball in Washington are just beginning to get their minds around such novel question ones which have an optimistic undertone, rather than the jaded, defeatist subtext that lingered here for a generation.
A year ago, I spoke with a source with access to studies about potential Washington baseball attendance. The conclusions were vague. But the "ballpark" assumption was an average attendance of 25,000 in RFK at a minimum and, with a little luck, 30,000. However, 35,000-a-game in RFK was considered a starry-eyed maximum that no sensible businessperson should model into projections or acquisition bids. No number like the 37,097 average in the Nats last 29 dates was even mentioned.
Before the Nationals arrived, the ability of the Washington area to support a team had been one of baseball's great debates for more than 30 years. Even the D.C. Council was passionately divided. Now that debate is over, at least among the sane.
The next key question was whether the Orioles would lose significant attendance. That verdict has arrived, too. The Orioles' attendance for the previous three seasons ('02-'03-'04) was 32,588. This season, in their eighth straight losing year, the Orioles average crowd is 32,599. The least expected of all outcomes -- no impact whatsoever on the O's -- has come to pass. Case closed. Finally. The reason the Orioles have lost 13,000 fans a game from their '90s heyday is due to the losing teams they field every year. That's their problem, not Washington. Somebody tell Peter Angelos to stuff an orange-and-black sock in his mouth.
One year, especially a first season with so many unique elements, can't answer every question. Especially when that season contains both enormously positive surprises, like a 50-31 Nats first half, and unimagined negatives, like the worst TV and radio coverage of any team in any major pro sport. But three conclusions are already inescapable.
Even in a contending year for the Nats and a sub-.500 season for Baltimore, Washington has not hurt the Orioles. Fear mongering that the vast D.C. area of '05 could not support baseball were canards. Any franchise, run into the ground long enough, can flounder anywhere. But barring many years of incompetent management, baseball in D.C. should succeed.
Most interesting, however, as well as most unexpected, is the final conclusion. The forlorn town of "Damn Yankees," the city that endured dumb jokes about "first in war, first in peace and last in the American League," may get the final laugh.
After just five months, it is now reasonable to wonder if Washington, so long scorned, might actually turn out to be one of the best baseball cities in America.
Washington Post 31 August 2005
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