By: Mike Frandsen
The best-of-five series is tied at a game apiece after the Cardinals routed the Nats 12-4 in Game 2.
The series pits the Nationals, the team with the best record in the majors at 98 wins, against the defending World Series champion Cardinals, who made the playoffs as a wild card with 88 victories.
But the real story is the rise of baseball in Washington, a city that went without the national pastime for 33 years. The city’s fan base has been relentlessly criticized by both national and local media for poor attendance. It’s also fashionable for critics inside and outside the beltway to declare D.C. a bad baseball town.
But is this oft-repeated perception reality?
Nats Merchandise sales and TV ratings are up dramatically over previous years, as is attendance.
The Nationals played their first three seasons at charming but dilapidated RFK Stadium, a dinosaur among today’s new stadiums. RFK had virtually none of the amenities of any current major league stadiums, and the surrounding area lacked the restaurants, bars, and retail shops that fans in other cities take for granted.
In 2008, the Nats moved into Nationals Park, a modern facility with plenty of bells and whistles for fans, though it has been criticized for having a bland, concrete feel. The park was built in an area of Southeast Washington that was economically depressed, and then the economic downturn hit. Plans to develop the area around the stadium stalled.
Four years later, there are still very few places to eat a meal, grab a drink, or spend money around the stadium other than the bizarre “Fairgrounds” adjacent to the stadium. A 775,000 square foot “mixed use urban gateway” is currently under construction that promises places to “live, work, shop, play, eat, and stay.” The only problem is that it has been “coming soon” for quite a while now.
After Verizon Center, home of the Wizards and Capitals, was built as the MCI Center in 1997, it took years for the area to transition from abandoned buildings to the bustling center of activity it is today. Nats Park is still in its infancy.
Meanwhile, the Nats, who surprisingly finished .500 in their inaugural season, followed that with six straight losing seasons, twice losing more than 100 games.
Given what the fans have been offered, Nationals attendance has been more than respectable.
In 2012, the Nats averaged 30,010 fans. The New York Yankees, who won the World Series in 1996, averaged 27,789 that year. In fact, the Yankees didn’t average 30,000 fans during any season from 1989 to 1996. It wasn’t until the Yankees had won 23 World Series titles that they routinely averaged more than 30,000 fans per game. During the first five years of the Washington Nationals’ franchise, the Nats averaged more fans than the Yankees did from 1992-1996. That includes the Nats’ worst attendance year of 22,435 in 2009.
A look at teams whose playoff histories are similar to those of the Nats shows that Washington’s 2012 attendance of 30,010 is just about where it should be.
- The Tampa Bay Rays made it to the World Series in 2008. During their previous 10 seasons, the Rays finished fourth or fifth every year. In 2008, the Rays averaged 22,259 fans.
- The Colorado Rockies made it to the World Series in 2007. They had made the playoffs once in their previous 14 seasons. In 2007, the Rockies averaged 28,978 fans.
- The Detroit Tigers advanced to the World Series in 2006. They hadn’t made the playoffs since 1987. In 2006, the Tigers averaged 32,048 fans.
- The Chicago White Sox won the World Series in 2005. The White Sox qualified for the postseason once in their previous 11 seasons. In 2005, the White Sox averaged 28,923.
- The Florida (now Miami) Marlins won the World Series in 2003. The Marlins made postseason play once in their previous 10 seasons. In 2003, the Marlins averaged 16,290 fans.
- The Los Angeles (then Anaheim) Angels won the World Series in 2002. The Angels failed to make the playoffs any of the 15 previous seasons. They averaged 28,463 in 2002.
There have been a few World Series teams in the last 10 seasons, other than the Yankees, who averaged considerably more than the Nats did in 2012.
In 2010, the San Francisco Giants averaged 37,499 fans the season they won it all. But they had a foundation to build upon, making the playoffs four times between 1997 and 2003. The Giants also had a state-of-the-art ballpark that rests next to the San Francisco Bay.
In 2005, when the Houston Astros made it to the World Series, they averaged 34,626 fans, but they had made the playoffs five of the previous eight seasons and also boasted one of the best ballparks in baseball.
So it appears that winning does matter, as does the ballpark.
Still, Nats attendance figures haven’t been near the top of the league. The losing, the years without a team, and the stadium situations aren’t solely to blame.
A great many D.C. fans still root for the Baltimore Orioles. The 33-year gap without a team coincided with an era in which the Orioles, just an hour north, had 20 winning seasons, won a World Series, built the best stadium in baseball, and were covered by the D.C. media as if they were local. Fans from the so-called bad baseball town of D.C. helped the O’s set team attendance records in the 80s and 90s.
The Nationals’ TV contract has been controlled by the Orioles, a decision made by major league baseball when the Montreal Expos moved to D.C. O’s owner Peter Angelos vigorously opposed a team coming to D.C.
For years, Nats games were broadcast on three different channels that were sometimes hard to find. The programming on the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network, which carries the games, was mostly focused on Baltimore. Often, before or after a Nats game there was no other programming at all. MASN was also late in getting on the high definition-TV bandwagon.
The Nats weren’t marketed by ownership or covered by local media their first several seasons as much as they are today. Overcharging fans for seats behind home plate led to a perception that people weren’t going to the games.
The team had few identifiable stars other than Alfonso Soriano and Adam Dunn, but both of those players were let go. Only Ryan Zimmerman has been with the team since its first season.
Sports radio station hosts ridiculed the fans for poor attendance and complained that they didn’t get many Nats calls, yet those same hosts largely ignored the Nats.
Despite the missteps made by the franchise, the Nationals’ plan to build with youth for the long-term is paying off. The lean years yielded number one draft picks Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper. The Nationals’ may have overpaid for free agent Jayson Werth in 2011, but the $126 million signing showed the Nats were ready to compete.
There may be a surplus of Philadelphia fans at Nats Park, but virtually unreported is the fact that more than a few fans in Nationals gear show up for away games vs. the New York Mets.
The franchise still has a way to go, but when compared with other teams that made the playoffs after long droughts, the Nats’ attendance is nothing to be ashamed of. A look back at the Yankees’ mediocre attendance before 2000 shows that the mythical team’s fans may be overrated.
Calling D.C. a bad baseball town is a rush to judgment. In fact, D.C. helped support a team that was an hour away for many years, had to put up with more losing than almost any other city, and didn’t even have the sport for a generation and a half.
Whether the Nats win the World Series or get eliminated in the NLDS, this season has been a success on the field and at the gate. With the youth of the team and its strong talent base, things are only going to get better.
Mike Frandsen is a freelance writer covering all things Redskins. His work can be found on Examiner.com.