This week, Nick wondered aloud what the Washington Nationals would look like, if only they had spent some money to retain former prospects like Brandon Phillips, Jason Bay or Javier Vasquez, instead of trading them for more affordable pieces.
But it was Melissa, a frequent Umpbump commenter, who caught my attention with this seemingly innocent line:
Now that (The Nationals) have a new stadium and are operating in a bigger market they should have the resources to keep their own talent….
That comment reminded me that, last we checked, the Nationals weren’t selling many tickets to games at the new stadium. But, now that the weather has warmed up, they must be drawing better, right?
In a word, no.
So far this year, the Nats are averaging 30,347 fans per game, in a park that holds 41,888. This season, they’ve sold 18,000 season tickets, an increase of 3,000 since the team moved from Montreal to D.C. But the Nationals had a season-ticket base of about 22,500 in their first season at RFK in 2005, meaning the club has lost the equivalent of 4,500 season ticket holders since then.
What lessons can we learn from this? First of all, that new stadiums aren’t the draw that they used to be. When Oriole Park at Camden Yards opened in 1992, spectators packed the park. Orioles’ attendance, routinely below 25,000 at Memorial Stadium, soared above 40,000 at the new park and remained there for nine seasons. Cleveland’s Jacobs Field (now Progressive Field) opened in 1994 and had a run of 455 consecutive sellouts. But the thrill of new, retro ballparks is gone. The Nationals are learning the hard way that it now takes more than just a new stadium to attract fans. It takes … drumroll please … a competitive team. Or Barry Bonds.
What does this mean for the Nationals? I think it casts real doubt on the assertion that Washington’s new stadium will lead to increased resources. Moreover, since the Orioles control the TV broadcasting rights to all of theNationals’ games, Washington seems like a longshot to achieve big-market status anytime soon – if ever.
I’m not an economist, but I think the Nats’ situation can be boiled down to this catch-22: The fans won’t show up unless the team improves, and the team can’t afford better players unless the fans show up.
So if Washington is going to win, they’re going to have to do it the hard way – the small market way. I think it’s time for Stan Kasten to buy himself a copy of Moneyball.