- The Washington Times - Friday, September 14, 2007

The crowd at the Nationals-Marlins game Wednesday afternoon at Dolphin Stadium was so small that reporters were able to conduct a head count from the press box.

The number? 375.

That hasn’t been possible at RFK Stadium this year — the crowds haven’t been that small. But, let’s face it: You wouldn’t need an army of accountants to take a head count some nights.

That shouldn’t be the case for the 10-game homestand that starts tonight with a series against the Braves — the final major league baseball games to be played at RFK Stadium.

Granted, its not exactly like saying goodbye to Wrigley Field here.

The stadium is 46 years old, but only about 13 seasons of major league ball were played in it because of the 33-year gap between the time Senators left after the 1971 season and the Expos relocated to the District in 2005.

Still, this is an important place in the tradition of baseball in Washington. The final 10 games at RFK should bring out crowds too big to count from the press box — especially considering the opponents for the homestand are the Braves, Mets and Phillies.

The Nats have proved entertaining and, after their 9-25 start, competitive. Even with a 56-56 record, they’re worth the price of a ticket.

The team has drawn 1.7 million fans to RFK through 71 home games, and it is perfectly reasonable to expect that total to reach 2 million by the end of this homestand. It should be a lock.

But what will it mean if they don’t reach that mark? Is it just a short-term embarrassment for the club or an indication of bigger problems for baseball in Washington?

The future of baseball here is difficult to assess based on this season or, really, the club’s three years at RFK.

So much has worked against drawing fans to the stadium, particularly this season. This old stadium has no amenities. The Nats were coming off a disappointing, losing season, and predictions for this season were even worse. Plus, Nats games were near impossible to see on television for a year and a half of the club’s tenure at RFK because of the fight between Comcast and MASN.

Still, taking all that into consideration, a failure to reach 2 million this season would be embarrassing. The Nats drew 2.15 million last year even with the television issue unresolved for part of the season. An industry official once told me that a season of televised games — basically a three-hour commercial for the team — is worth 300,000 ticket sales. So failing to hit 2 million in the team’s first full season of television broadcasts would make that number look even worse.

That might be forgotten when the new ballpark opens and sellout crowds arrive, as would be expected — but only if the ownership of the Lerner family and Stan Kasten get it. Right now, we have no proof that they do.

This season’s turnstile count, as a reflection of the performance of the owners, could be interpreted in two ways. Either they made serious misjudgments in the marketing of this team — i.e., they tried their hardest to get people to the stadium and failed — or they decided there was little they could do this year and that they would simply wait to pull out the promotional stops until the team moves into the new ballpark.

Either way, it’s not good. Trying and failing shows poor marketing skills. Not trying shows poor vision. Perhaps ownership hasn’t noticed that you can’t walk down a street here without running into someone wearing burgundy and gold.

It will take years to add red to that mix. The Nats can’t afford to give up one year, certainly not so soon after the rebirth of baseball in Washington.

Think about this: At the current rate, the Nationals will finish the season with 1.96 million in attendance. That means they will have to draw at least 1 million more fans to seriously consider the inaugural season at the new ballpark a success.

But that’s next year. Right now, the Nationals need 300,000 people to come say goodbye to baseball at RFK Stadium when, three years after the return of the game, too many still haven’t come to say hello.

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