Where Are All the Nats Fans?

With a first-place record and a growing stable of marquee stars, why isn’t DC’s baseball team consistently drawing big crowds?

We said we would be there when the Nationals got good. So now that they finally are, where are we?

For a team that finds itself in first place 29 games into
the season, the Nationals’ attendance figures have been shockingly
low–especially considering that in past years, the 29-game mark
has been right around the time realistic playoff hopes for
the team have evaporated.

If you take away the season’s opening home series
(every team draws well for their first series) and the three games this
past weekend against the Phillies and their traveling band of
enemy gate-crashers, the Nats have failed to draw 25,000 fans
in eight of their other nine home games so far this year. In
six of those nine games, the total number of fans has been under
20,000. Their midweek (Monday through Thursday) average
attendance for the season so far (not counting opening day) is 17,900.
In a building that can hold more than 41,000, that’s not good.

On April 16, the night Stephen Strasburg made his
season debut at Nationals Park, the team drew an astonishingly meager
16,245.
On May 1, the night of Bryce Harper’s home unveiling–an event
that had nearly a week of advance billing as Harper made his
Major League debut over the preceding weekend in Los
Angeles–the turnstiles clicked just 22,675 times. The next night, just
16,274 turned up to see Harper go three-for-four in his second
home game.

The Nationals are finally giving Washington a reason to care, and we aren’t responding–at least not in person.

All of this reminds us there is a vast difference
between wanting a baseball team and actually having one. Ten years ago,
we Washingtonians banged the drum with fervor and frequency to
let Major League Baseball know we wanted a team of our own.
Ever since the Senators left for Texas in 1971, we proclaimed
it to be unjust that a city of our size and stature would be
without a big league club. How could the nation’s capital not
have an entrant in the national pastime? Sure, we had the Orioles
35 miles up the road, and that Ripken fellow certainly gave us
some nice memories, but we are Washington, damn it! We want
a whole sandwich to ourselves–not merely the half Peter Angelos
didn’t eat.

And so we promised we would love, honor and cherish a
DC-based franchise if Commissioner Selig would see fit to bestow one
on us. But when the Expos finally came south of the border in
2005, it turned out our love wasn’t quite so unconditional.
After the novelty of the Nationals’ inaugural season wore off,
fans were left unmoved by an antiquated RFK Stadium and a franchise
that had been badly mismanaged since Major League Baseball took
over its stewardship in 2002. The net result was a Nationals
team that finished in last place in five of its first six years
of existence, prompting fans to leave the following outgoing
greeting on their collective voicemail: Call us when you don’t
stink.

But now the team is certifiably good. So why are fans still largely staying away?

In fairness, it took the Caps a couple of decades to
develop a rabid following. Washington’s hockey team always had a loyal
base, but even in 1998, their two home games in the Stanley Cup
Finals were largely populated by Red Wings fans. It wasn’t
until the Ovechkin era and the accompanying assumption that the
team would compete for a division title on an annual basis
that the Caps started to post regular sellouts. Perhaps once
Strasburg, Harper, and company start accruing similar results,
the increased ticket demand will follow.

Until then, Nationals management is forced to coax and
prod its fanbase to the ballpark with a combination of incentives and
guilt. This past weekend’s Our Park campaign, designed to wrest
control of the Nationals’ home stadium back from road-tripping
Phillies fans, was at the same time ingenious and demeaning. It
should not be necessary for a first-place team to come up
with a marketing scheme to ensure a home game doesn’t feel like
a road game. I went to the ballpark on Saturday, and while
the attendance was a robust 39,496–the highest since the home
opener–it seemed to me that at least one-third of the crowd
was still partial to the Phillies. That’s demoralizing.

For next Wednesday’s game against the Pirates, the
Nationals have announced a special offer at the concession stands: a
beer
and a bag of peanuts for $5. I admire their aggressiveness when
it comes to promotions, but that sounds more like a happy
hour special at Bennigan’s than something you’d find at a Major
League ballpark. You know what the Yankees offer for $5? Air.

If you take a moment to dissect what the Nationals
have done over the first six weeks of the season, it’s fairly
remarkable.
Their pitching staff has posted the lowest ERA in baseball
while featuring two starters who have undergone Tommy John surgery
on their elbows. Ten of their 18 wins have been decided by one
run, and they’ve done it all without their clean-up hitter,

Michael Morse, their closer,
Drew Storen, and their most experienced starting pitcher,
Chien-Ming Wang. Wouldn’t you pay to see a group like that? (If you’ve paid to see the Wizards at any point over the past two years, that’s
a rhetorical question.)

As a baseball town, we are officially out of excuses.
We can’t complain about the quality of the ballpark anymore. Nationals
Park (not withstanding that left-field parking structure that
inexplicably obscures the view of the Capitol) is truly one
of the most enjoyable new venues in baseball. We can’t claim
the owners are cheap (see
Jayson Werth‘s contract). And we can’t complain that the team doesn’t win. For all of us who spent years clamoring for a baseball team
in this town, it’s time to do what real fans do: show up.

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