Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Peter Angelos once took valuable time from running the Orioles organization into the ground, in order to assert that there are no baseball fans in Washington. The Nationals clearly have some attendance issues, but it’s worth pointing out that they’re not doing too badly thus far. Out of 30 teams, according to ESPN, the Nationals are averaging just under 30,000 per game, good for 15th in the league. The Orioles are well back in 24th place, at around 22,000. Looking at the average attendance over the past three years:


Washington Nationals

Baltimore Orioles










2005-2007 total






The shape of the 2005-07 attendance figures (and that amazing equivalence in 2006) is somewhat similar, but 2008 so far seems to suggest teams going in opposite directions. And at the end of the month, the Nationals’ 10-17 record puts them on pace to win exactly 60 games, while the first-place Orioles look to be 24 games over .500 at 93-69. One can only wonder what the how much greater the attendance disparity would be if the Nationals could field a decent team and if the Orioles were not in first place.

Of course, the O’s attendance prospects will pick up in May and June, when they host Boston, since the Nation shows up in force at Camden Yards, generally making it seem like a Red Sox home game.

Happily, the national anthem at Nationals Park has been blissfully devoid of “O’s” on the last line. Surprisingly (at least to me), I’ve continued to hear that call during the anthem at Caps games. I’ve always thought we could safely say that there are no hockey fans in Baltimore.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Lineup, what lineup?

OK, here's my 2 cents on the lineup (if you're reading this at the ballpark, it's 7 cents).

- get Zimmerman out of the top 4. He can't produce at all right now, looks terrible at the plate, and needs to lick his wounds and get better in the lower half of the lineup.

- put Kearns at the top, where he can't hit into as many double plays, and where the only thing he can manage well at the plate -- walks -- might actually help. He's probably too slow for leadoff on most teams, but on the Nationals he seems positively svelte, and he hustles.

- please, please, please get Jesus Flores back up and into the lineup and let him see if his reasonable start with few at-bats can hold at all. His 11 at-bats have yielded a single, 2 doubles and a HR.

Why not get drastic -- what're we gonna do, lose? Here we go:

1. Kearns
2. Milledge
3. Guzman
4. Johnson
5. Belliard
6. Zimmerman
7. Pena
8. Flores/LoDuca (please not Estrada)
9. Pitcher

I put Milledge into the top 4, since he's batting over .300, and Belliard's looking anemic after a strong spring. Belliard-Zimmerman-Pena and either Flores or Lo Duca could be a bottom half that inspires some respect, assuming they find themselves.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Where's the money? Right at home.

I've seen several articles bemoaning the low attendance at Nationals Park during the first homestand. According to ESPN, Nationals attendance is 18th of 30 in numbers (averaging 28,214 over the first 7 home games) and 16th in percent of the stadium sold (capacity 41,222). Take out the obvious opening night sellout, and we drop to 26,352.

Of course, like virtually anything else coming out of major league baseball these days, these numbers are designed to put the nicest possible dress on a pretty ugly pig. The sad fact is that turnstile attendance can range from 60%-95% of paid attendance. (MLB guards these numbers closely, but you can guess where the Marlins might rank.)

So where is everyone? At last Friday's game, on a picture-perfect evening against the Braves, the announced crowd of 28,051 felt more like 20,000 -- the stadium looked well under half full, even with a substantial Braves' fan presence. Allow me to suggest that the Lerner-Kasten-Bowden axis has seriously overestimated the Washington area's willingness to be openly fleeced. Take Friday night as a case in point; in response to the Roundtable's excellent discussion on attendance I wrote:

The first outing to Nationals park for our family of four:
      $160 for bleacher seats
      $62 for dinner (2 RH&B, 1 cheese steak, 1 burger, 2 sodas, 2 beers)
      $32 for peanuts & drink (2 sodas, 2 beers)
      $20 for ice cream

Total: $274. Maybe if there was a decent team on the field, maybe if the fleecing wasn't so obvious (is the extra 50 cents per beer that important), maybe if there weren't SO many empty $300 seats right behind home plate, maybe, maybe, maybe ... it would be worth it. The Nationals management seems to view its fan base like so many cattle, willing to use any method to get us to stand still for the slaughter.

Over the past two seasons, I've been to games at AT&T, OPCY, Citizen's Bank, and US Cellular, and seat prices for non-prime left/right field bleachers are substantially lower:

$13 AT&T
$15 OPCY
$24 Citizen's
$32 US Cellular

Concession prices are hard to find, but on my most recent trip to US Cellular I spent $5.50 for a polish dog that was better than anything on offer at Nationals Park. And even the fancy microbrews at AT&T don't cost $7.50. So if the Nationals want to put more fans in the seats, make it a little easier on the wallets.

Here are some ideas:

1. Give away some free stuff. Give away vouchers for a drink or a hot dog -- have birthday clubs where you get them in the mail (like California Pizza Kitchen and similar restaurants), or tied them in to Giant purchases. Offer 2-for-1 deals, or "meal deals" or similar.

2. Move people up in the seats. I'm assuming (?) that all those empty seats behind home plate are not yet sold. So every game, pick a row from another section and move them into the good seats. You'll create goodwill, some folks will actually buy those seats rather than move "back" for the next game, and everyone will feel like they got something (other than screwed). Nothing says "lousy fan base" like empty seats behind the plate.

3. Charge a reasonable price for bleacher seats. I gotta believe that having sections 3/4 full at 2/3 the price is better than being 1/5 full at twice what they're worth.

Of course, none of this will matter if the Nationals only win, say, 60 games this year. And I'm a fan.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Friday, April 11 (Braves 3, Nationals 0)

First trip to the new stadium: WOW! Exiting Metro for a 100-yard walk along Half St, what a great entrance. Much better entrance aesthetic than the three other "new" parks I've been to in the last couple of years (AT&T in San Francisco, Citizen's Bank Park in Philly, OPCY, US Cellular or whatever they call the new Comiskey). Large, open concourse, looking right down onto the field, lots of open space, and the cool round electronic logo.

Quick spin around the lower level -- love the variety of food, LOVE the wide spaces, no lines for bathrooms, lower level spaces are open enough to let the sound out, very well done.

So RAVE #1: Look and feel. It's a beautiful park, terrific proportions and coloring, and feels instantly comfortable. The seats are gorgeous (is there such a thing as Nationals Blue?) and acquire a shimmer as they catch the setting sun. There are "picnic" tables set up inside the park in lots of places. As a Nationals fan, I'm happy and proud.

RAVE #2: Metro. I've read little positive about the Metro experience to and from the game, but we had a very positive experience in both directions. We got there super early to check out the stadium and catch batting practice (a lot of fun) with no problems on Metro. On the way home, we were crowded but steady going into the Navy Yard station, and got on the first train out. At Gallery Place, we ran into a zillion Caps fans (coming off a 5-4 win...YES!) and still got onto the first Red Line toward Shady Grove.

RANT #1: Cost. If we're not the target audience, then I don't know who is: DC residents, family of four, two boys aged 9 and 12 who love baseball in general and the Nationals in particular. Generally attended RFK 5-10 times per year (Dad -- me -- went a few more times). Our price for four seats in the the right field bleachers ... $161.50. Are you kidding? Yes, I know they're not just benches but seats, I know they have cup holders, blah, blah, blah. (They have a lot of problems too, see below rant on signage and comment on sight lines.) Want a sandwich from Red Hot & Blue -- $10, $12.50 with potato salad. 3 Budweisers: $22.50. We're prepared for some inflation, we're prepared to suspend credibility, etc. but we ARE NOT PREPARED TO BE TREATED LIKE IDIOTS. No wonder the stadium is basically empty -- believe me, 28K paid (maybe 3/4 of them showed) on a beautiful April evening against a divisional opponent counts as empty. We'll go maybe another time or two, tops.

RANT #2: Signage. Buying the tickets for this game, I went with the outfield to keep four tickets below $200 while staying out of the clouds. I took row E in right field rather than row H in left field because, well, we were three rows closer. What you cannot realize from the seating pages is that sections 140-143 CANNOT SEE THE SCOREBOARD. Well, OK, we'll follow the game from the secondary scoreboards around the stadium...NOT. First, there's hardly any information: the traditional 10-inning score with cumulative runs-hits-errors is compressed into the current score. The current batter name and stats have headings so small and poorly-designed (yellow on red?) that's it hard to figure them out. (This wasn't helped by Guzman's posted stats, in which his BA was higher than OBP, which I suspect can occur but I can't quite figure out how!). And the rest of the space is used for ... ads, yes, the same single ad repeated three times. So the information is displayed in one quarter of the space, while the same ad is repeated three times in the other three quarters. (Believe me, I will never never never visit

RANT #3: empty seats behind the plate. It looks bad on TV, but even worse in person: the $100 and $300 seats behind home plate are virtually EMPTY. Washington and the Nationals will never be taken seriously if they cannot get people into those seats. If anyone reading this is a friend of Stan K, beg him to give those seats away. How about randomly selecting a row in each of two other sections and moving people up after the 3rd inning? You'll earn loyalty, look good, and some of those folks will buy in the pricier areas.

COMMENT #1: parking lots. Anyone can see that the above-ground parking lots are basically an architectural disaster. They're ugly, cut off what could be great views of the water and the surrounding development, and have all the ambience of an exurban office park. However, the Nationals do a pretty good job of hiding them from the inside of the park with large panels (a couple of which are blank, gotta get on that advertising sales staff!), and letting them frame the view of the field from the outside. It is a shame that the Nationals chose to buck the current trend toward more interesting architecture that's showing up everywhere else in the city in favor of building with all the pizazz of oatmeal.

COMMENT #2: sight lines. In many places, I've read that the sight lines are wonderful and that the design of the park yields an intimate baseball experience. Compared to RFK, sure, but even my affection for that pile of concrete can't stop me from pointing out that it well may be the worst venue for baseball that I've ever seen. From section 142, the sight lines at Nationals Park are adequate at best, and inferior to the outfield sight lines at AT&T or OPCY. Intimate? Sorry, no. This isn't a rant yet, because I was too lazy to climb up to the upper level behind the plate and check out the view, but it's the least intimate of the fields I mentioned above. The same design that leads to the open and airy feel also pushes the fans farther away. For our next game, we'll likely try the upper sections somewhere between 1st and 3rd, and I can compare those to similar seats in Chicago and Philly.

Happily, I can work around most of the problems -- buy seats with a scoreboard view, move into better seats, bring a sandwich from Subway, etc. It's a beautiful stadium, I loved being there, and the memories started right away when my 9-year-old got a ball on his birthday.