Nationals’ marketing, park and players only go so far in drawing fans

ASSOCIATED PRESS
Stephen Strasburg taking the mound at Nationals Park in 2010 meant on averate an additional 15,564 fans through the turnstiles. Strasburg has been shelved by an elbow injury this year. Below, the Thomas Jefferson mascot gave a warm welcome on Opening Day.
ASSOCIATED PRESS Stephen Strasburg taking the mound at Nationals Park in 2010 meant on averate an additional 15,564 fans through the turnstiles. Strasburg has been shelved by an elbow injury this year. Below, the Thomas Jefferson mascot gave a warm welcome on Opening Day.
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The top-selling Nationals jersey of all time belongs to a player who has spent barely two months in Washington.

After Stephen Strasburg made his first major league start in June 2010, his jersey became the most popular in MLB for the month, with more than 78,000 sales by July 1. The expectations surrounding him crashed to a halt when he underwent Tommy John surgery in September after being injured the previous month. But until Strasburg was placed on the DL, the Nationals drew an average of 15,564 more fans to home games he started.

Despite the frenzy caused by the phenom, the team’s executives understand that marketing requires an approach that transcends a single player. Strasburg’s pitching adds excitement to a game, but he cannot single-handedly bear responsibility for lifting attendance. Only a contending team on the field and an outstanding overall gameday experience will keep fans coming to the stadium - and the Nationals hope they will soon be able to offer both.

“The park is already a great venue,” chief operating officer Andy Feffer. “But to create added value within that experience - to say, ‘Im coming back, this is a great place to be - that’s a difficult thing to do in a crowded marketplace.”

This year’s MLB attendance leader, Philadelphia, draws an average of 45,482 by providing fans the ideal combination of team and venue. The Phillies have made the playoffs each year since 2007, winning the 2008 World Series, and currently have the best record in baseball. Still, one key to their ticket sales is the opening of a new stadium in 2004.

“Philadelphia has always been a great baseball town, but while playing in Veterans Stadium prior to 2004 our fan base consisted primarily of baseball ‘diehards’ and families,” said Michael Harris, director of marketing and special projects. “In Citizens Bank Park, we’ve certainly enjoyed a general expansion of our fan base and a resurgence in the younger demographic attending our games.”

The appeal of Citizens Bank Park was immediately apparent. Average attendance at Phillies games increased from 28,973 in 2003 to 40,626 in 2004, although the team won 86 games in both seasons and did not make the playoffs.

Another, more recent, example of positive fan response to a new stadium was the opening of Target Field in Minnesota last year. After nearly three decades in the Metrodome, the Twins drew an average of 39,798 fans in 2010, up from 29,446 in 2009.

“Almost every new ballpark, early on, fans want to come out and see the new facility and experience a new setting and, in our case, we had almost two generations of fans who had never experienced outdoor baseball, at least at a big-league level,” said Patrick Klinger, vice president of marketing for the Twins. “Attendance has been extraordinarily strong.”

When Nationals Park opened three years ago, Washington’s sinking attendance figures from RFK Stadium temporarily revived, increasing by nearly 5,000 fans per game from 24,217 in 2007 to 29,205 in 2008. But after the team inaugurated the new park with a 59-win season, average attendance plummeted to 22,715 in 2009.

Contrast the Nats with the Diamondbacks, a franchise that played its first season in 1998 and won the World Series in just its fourth year of existence. Following the championship, attendance in Arizona jumped from 33,881 in 2001 to 39,515 in 2002.

“In the early years, the marketing of the team leveraged the built-in excitement that was created when the city was awarded a franchise,” said Kari Bohn, senior director of marketing. “The early successes of the team were also a common marketing theme.”

Washington does not have any early successes to point to, but the slogan “Expect It” captures management’s expectations for a bright future. With a 46-46 mark at the All-Star Break, the Nationals showed improvement over their 39-50 record at that time a year ago. Although no individual has Strasburg’s drawing power, the team is stocked with talented players.

Take Jordan Zimmermann, selected by the Nationals in the second round of the 2007 draft, who has a 3.00 ERA. Or rookie second baseman Danny Espinosa, chosen in the third round in 2008, whose 17 home runs and 55 RBI are tied with Michael Morse for the team lead. Or Drew Storen, drafted in the first round in 2009 and already an impact closer with 25 saves. The success of a group of stars, not one, holds the key to bringing fans to the ballpark.

“It cant be one person that will change the core,” Feffer said. “Its a bit of a cliche, but in baseball its truer than in any other sport. From a marketing perspective, you dont want to take one guy or two guys and make them the face [of the team]. Theyre important elements, but it requires much more.”

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