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Nationals boost MLB attendance

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Attendance at Major League Baseball games has increased this season, a rise solely attributable to the arrival of the Nationals in Washington.

Major League Baseball (MLB) drew a paid attendance of 42.34 million through Monday night's games, an increase of 805,301, or 1.9 percent, over the same point last season.

However, attendance for the Nationals franchise grew by an even greater amount: The team has drawn 1,059,174 more fans than it did at this point last season playing as the Montreal Expos.

In short, overall attendance at major league games would have declined this season if not for the strong performance of the Nationals -- a radical change of fortune for a team that was a notoriously poor draw in Montreal.

In fact, the Nationals' average attendance of 33,179 in 44 games at RFK Stadium is more than triple what the Expos achieved last season.

"We've been on the wrong side of this equation for a long time, dragging down the whole league average, so it's quite good to have that turned around," Nationals President Tony Tavares said yesterday.

To be certain, baseball is quite healthy in many key markets: Seventeen teams, including the Nationals, either have held steady or shown growth in attendance this season.

But attendance for seven teams -- the Arizona Diamondbacks, Cincinnati Reds, Colorado Rockies, Houston Astros, Philadelphia Phillies, Kansas City Royals and Tampa Bay Devil Rays -- has fallen by double-digit percentages, leaving the Nationals to make up the difference.

The reasons for the decline vary. Devil Rays attendance, for example, is dampened by the team's woeful play and inept management. The Phillies have suffered the typical decline of a team playing in a second-year stadium that still is new but no longer novel to fans.

MLB is on pace to finish the season with a record paid attendance of more than 73 million. The projections are striking for the Nationals, as well: Team officials expect attendance at each remaining game at RFK Stadium to exceed 30,000.

The Nationals already have drawn more fans this season than any other Washington baseball team, as well as any Expos team from the past seven years. More than 2.6 million fans are expected to attend Nationals games at RFK Stadium by the end of the season, easily a franchise record.

The surge in attendance has occurred despite a series of operational and security problems at RFK Stadium and limited TV exposure for the team's games, which are produced and distributed by the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network (MASN). An ongoing legal dispute between Comcast Corp. and the Baltimore Orioles, controlling owner of the MASN, has kept a significant number of Nationals games off the air.

Still, the Nationals have not sought to make an issue of their attendance with MLB executives.

"This, quite frankly, is not something we've really talked about," Mr. Tavares said. "And to be honest, we can't worry about the rest of the league. We have our hands full here, and we're simply trying to keep our heads down and do our jobs as best we can."

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