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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.

Nationals Park

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.

Jim BowdenWhat 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.

9 Responses to “If you build it, they’re not necessarily going to come.”

  1. One thing people tend to overlook when a team builds a new stadium is their ad revenue and their luxury suite revenue. This new stadium is generating more income for the Nationals even though the stadium may not be full. Since DC is a city with a corporate presence I would imagine their luxury boxes generate a huge revenue for them. Don’t assume that since the stadium isn’t full that the team’s not making money, of course they would make more if they were at capacity. A new stadium opens revenue streams that often go unnoticed. You should not assume that they can’t increase the payroll unless they are at capacity attendance.

  2. You’re right about possible luxury suite revenue, Melissa. I’ll have to look into that.

    Of course, the real victim here is the taxpayers, who paid for the stadium. The District was supposed to recoup the cost of the stadium through concession sales. That may take longer than expected.

  3. trust me, this team makes plenty of money in ad revenue – I used to work in advertising in the MD/DC/VA region. Even when the teams in that area suck, there is still plenty of money coming in.

  4. and then I realized that that was probably not the point of what you were saying as I only read about half the sentence before jumping in. so brand me retarded commenter today and carry on…

    I do like the Presidents races – that’s a nice little gimmick. the guy at Deadspin ran in it as George Washington. One of the funniest videos. I’ve ever seen. I’d rather pay money to watch the inflatable presidential races than Ryan Zimmerman and crew.

  5. Sorry to have to keep making excuses for Washingtonians, Coley, but here\’s one more: a Metro trip to the Verizon Center to watch playoff basketball/hockey is much easier than taking two train lines to the Navy Yard station to see an early season game to see the lowly Nationals.

    While I agree that the luster of retro-stadiums has worn off, we still have to remember that, before 2005, Washington had been sans baseball for more than a generation. (Sorry, Peter Angelos, Baltimore doesn\’t count.) Therefore, management has always been aware that keeping Nationals fans in the stands requires more than just a new facility. A look at the revamped farm system demonstrates that the money is there, the patience is there, and this team will have the tools to compete in two to three years.

  6. Sarah Green says:

    I do also feel like when the Expos first moved to DC and became the Nats, there was all this excitement in the District about having a baseball team. (“Hey! Our Congressional representatives votes don’t count, but at least we’ve got our own baseball team again!”) But that excitement now seems to have died down. I think it will come back, eventually, if the Nationals can field a competitive team. It will also probably help if the Orioles keep sucking—a lot of Washingtonians got used to rooting for the O’s, but if the O’s are losing and the Nats are winning, they could be wooed.

  7. also, one disadvantage that the Nats have is that the population of DC is by and large a transplant city – so everyone there roots for their home team. there are more Boston, NY and Philly fans there than there are “DC” fans, because there are very few native DCers left in the area. so there’s no hometown loyalty the way there is in other cities. and I would challenge anyone actually born and raised in DC to disagree with me that the city hasn’t been taken over by transplants. (I lived there for 9 years, so I think I know what I’m talking about). Also, sadly, that’s where the disposable income – and luxury box revenue- is – with the Boston and NY fans. everyone’s seen it in Camden – the O’s get a lot of revenue from those teams fans. I think if the Nats were in the American League, this would be a whole different story. as it is, I could see the Nats getting more revenue from Phillies and Mets matchups than anywhere else. but being in the National League still doesn’t help them any.

    then again, there COULD be the advantage that you have people coming in from the midwest or parts of the country that have never had a baseball team to root for, so recruiting fans has its challenges but also advantages. but right now they are basically trying to build a fanbase from the ground up, and trying to recruit fans from other established fanbases, which, in the Northeast, is definitely not an easy task. I think that is the main challenge for getting asses in the seats right now.

  8. …and I think that this is more of the reason than because they are bad…I don’t care how good the Nats get, if I’m from Boston and I move to DC, I’d never switch my allegiance. same with anyone from NY or Philly who moves there. it just doesnt happen, no matter how good the team is.

  9. I agree with much of what you said, Lyndsay, but remember: the Deadskins, er, Redskins are golden here, no matter how pathetic the team does on the gridiron. (By the way, the Super Bowl champion Giants visit the White House tomorrow. Yay!)

    Ten to fifteen years from now, there will probably be more than enough homegrown Nats fans to carry a halfway decent team. That is not to say that there won\’t be plenty of Mets fans like me going to South Capitol Street to watch the games.

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