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.

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