The Nationals Are Doing Great, but Fans Are Not Showing Up

The Lerner family has built the hottest team in the major leagues right now. So why are the stands at Nats Park half empty?

By: Harry Jaffe

The Washington Nationals delivered another stellar performance Thursday night. They trounced the hapless Chicago Cubs 9-2 to sweep the four-game series. They clobbered the baseball, pitched well, fielded fine. They even entertained fans with two bench-clearing confrontations in the middle of the diamond.

Too bad so few fans were there to appreciate the show.

For the fourth game in a row, stands at Nationals Park were close to half empty. Attendance for Thursday night’s game was 22,447. Nationals Park’s capacity is 41,888. On Tuesday night, 17,648 fans showed. The stands looked deserted.

Which begs the nettlesome questions: Is Washington, DC, a baseball town? Can it support a major league franchise?

The Nationals are the hottest and best team in the major leagues right now. Their last-to-first narrative is the most compelling of the season. In Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper they have two of the best young players in the game. Manager Davey Johnson’s resurrection as the oldest skipper in the game is close to heroic. When will fans connect and show up?

Questions about Washington’s fan base were on the minds of major league owners when they agreed to move the Montreal Expos to DC in 2004. Two franchises had failed here. Could this one thrive?

The Lerner family, which owns the team, has been doing its part. The fan experience at the ballpark has improved. The videos and music are much better than the first year. Food lines move along. The staff is friendly and helpful. Nationals Park has a good vibe. The Lerners certainly enjoy it: Patriarch Ted Lerner and his wife, Annette, attended last night’s game along with a few family members. A home game rarely goes by without a Lerner in the owners’ box.

More important, the Lerners have delivered a quality team that has gone from last to first. At the moment the Nationals are in first place in the National League East and own the best record in baseball, 85 wins against 52 losses.

So why the lack of love?

Granted, the Cubs might not be the best draw. The Cubs and Nats played four midweek games in muggy weather.

The Nationals point out that attendance is up from last year. According to ESPN, the Nationals have drawn an average of 29,797 fans for home games so far this season. That puts the team 14th among the 30 Major League teams.

The Cubs, who are perpetual losers, are tenth, with an average of 36,343 in the stands this season at Wrigley Field. The Philadelphia Phillies ended a sellout streak at 257 games on August 6, just short of three years. That means the Phillies franchise has been drawing 43,651 fans to Citizens Bank Park. That streak made sense for the past few years, when the Phillies competed for the World Series and won it once. But fans kept coming this season, even though the Phils spent much of the season in the cellar.

The Nationals have been in town for only eight seasons, and they moved into the new ballpark in 2008. The Cubs and the Phillies have been in place for more than a century. The Nationals certainly deserve a few more years to build a fan base.

But this team this season is headed for the postseason. Who knows? They might even make it past the division series, win the National League pennant, and show up in the World Series.

Then maybe—hopefully—the stands will fill.