- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 17, 2005

It was anything but a perfect summer day to watch a baseball game.

Storm clouds threatened all afternoon, occasionally dropping rain on the Washington Nationals’ muggy matinee at RFK Stadium. A downpour that evening shortened a Baltimore Orioles game at Camden Yards to six innings.

Still, the two clubs drew nearly 92,000 combined on that Thursday in the first week of July, a figure that challenged even the most bullish projections by advocates of relocating the Montreal Expos to the District.

The arrival of the Nationals in Washington has created one of baseball’s stronger two-team markets — contrary to years of gloomy predictions from Orioles owner Peter Angelos — and established an avenue to a fragile peace in the long rivalry between the two cities.

With half a season of shared existence now history, both the Orioles and Nationals are packing the stands, chasing playoff berths, generating strong revenue and allowing the fanciful to dream of a parkway World Series between the clubs.

The scrappy Nationals are the surprise, feel-good story of baseball, leading the National League East and drawing an average of 33,249 to RFK — more than triple the Expos’ figure last year in Montreal and Puerto Rico, the team’s part-time home.

A 40-minute ride up the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, the Orioles are in an entertaining three-team battle with the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees for control of the American League East. The Orioles’ average home attendance of 33,199 is nearly identical to their average at the same point last season.

“Having a team back in the nation’s capital has been very, very helpful,” said Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig, who called the Nationals “America’s darlings.”

The Orioles, to be certain, remain less than thrilled with the presence of a team in the District and claim the Nationals will cost them a chance to return to the 3million mark in attendance for the first time since 2001.

But the Orioles also have a hefty, vested interest in the success of baseball in Washington: The franchise is the majority shareholder of the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network (MASN), the TV outlet that carries the Nationals and intends to do the same with the Orioles starting in 2007.

“There’s mixed feelings. I wish I could come up with the right word to explain it,” said Joe Foss, the Orioles’ chief operating officer. “But there’s no question this is something we’re having to learn to live with and adapt to. Fans are going to see the team closest to their home and office, and there’s obviously an attending, negative effect to us in that regard.

“The flip side, the financial relief, is the regional sports network that will by definition have its greatest success when the Nationals are doing well.”

Mr. Foss’s comments and the strong fan interest in the Nationals indicate a reality sharply at odds with remarks last summer by Mr. Angelos, who said on a local radio station, “There are no real baseball fans in D.C. That’s a fiction.”

Reality or mirage?

The fundamental question surrounding the success of the Nationals and Orioles this season is quite simple: Is the current situation a one-time exception or a true glimpse into the long-term future of both clubs? The answer, predictably, depends on which end of the parkway the query is posed.

The Nationals see untapped resources. The team’s home attendance to date — 1.43 million — has been achieved in a 44-year-old RFK Stadium beset with operational problems, in spite of an ongoing legal war between the Orioles and Comcast that has left the bulk of Nationals TV games unavailable to most area residents and without the benefit of a fully fledged sales and marketing program or even a permanent owner.

The Nationals are expected to draw about 3million each season once those issues are resolved and the club moves into its new stadium in Southeast in 2008 or 2009.

“We’re really just getting started, but the support we’ve seen for this team so far is very encouraging and very passionate,” said Kevin Uhlich, executive vice president of the Nationals. “Much of our season-ticket base is in Virginia and Maryland, and the Maryland addresses on our accounts by and large are very close to the city, places like inner Prince George’s County, southern Montgomery County.”

Added Nationals president Tony Tavares: “What’s happening is further testament to my long-held assertion that if both teams put forward a competitive product, this region is more than large enough to support two teams.”

The Orioles’ point of view is far more downbeat.

Mr. Foss projects a total attendance of 2.65million this season — a figure he considers to be an anomaly driven by both clubs’ unlikely rise as contenders for playoff berths. The Orioles also rely heavily on visiting fans from Boston, New York and Philadelphia to boost their totals.

“We’re on an up cycle right now, and these baseball teams will be here year in and year out,” Mr. Foss said. “Over time, I expect the impact [of the Nationals upon the Orioles] to become more pronounced. To be successful in this league nowadays, you really need to be getting to the very high 2million level or over 3 million [in attendance] every year.

“We’re both going to be around 2.6million or 2.7million this year, and I think it’s quite unlikely both teams will continue to draw that well.”

Industry upswing

A greater issue, however, surrounds the interaction of the Nationals and Orioles: the overall state of baseball.

Mr. Selig said last week baseball is “enjoying its biggest year” — a claim the commissioner has made in many recent years. This season the assertion is difficult to dispute.

Attendance is on pace for an increase for the third straight year and for a record total of more than 73million. New sponsorship dollars continue to pour in, international interest in the game is surging, and baseball’s Internet company is writing its own unlikely success story through sharply increased exposure and an aggressive expansion into the distribution of game video and audio to wireless devices.

“The overall health of Major League Baseball is very promising heading into the second half of the season,” said David Carter, a Los Angeles-based sports industry consultant. “Baseball proved it could withstand the steroids story, and there are some compelling stories on the field playing out that will likely aid the attendances of both clubs.”

The size of recent crowds at RFK Stadium and Camden Yards support that view and an even simpler notion that tens of thousands of fans without a strong attachment any particular team live in or visit the Baltimore-Washington area.

The Orioles, after a slow start at the turnstiles, recently drew more than 135,000 fans to a weekend interleague series against the lowly Colorado Rockies, producing three of the 17 home games this season for which the club sold more than 40,000 tickets.

Another recent set of games against division rival Boston, boosted by throngs of vacationing New Englanders, set single-game and series attendance records at 13-year-old Camden Yards.

At RFK, the diehards and political luminaries lining the stands since April’s home opener are now being joined by a large and growing wave of youth groups, tourists and tour bus groups.

“The group business is an area we’re really starting to target aggressively,” Mr. Uhlich said. “We’re working with the major tour operators and getting more of them to make our games part of the overall Washington experience they’re selling.”

Local TV ratings also are improving for most teams, including the Orioles. Comcast SportsNet — despite its legal war with the Orioles over the development of MASN and control over sports TV in the Mid-Atlantic region — reports a 30 percent increase in viewership for Orioles games in greater Washington and a 27 percent spike in Baltimore.

“The renewed success of the Orioles this season has been very good for us,” said Chris Helein, a Comcast spokesman.

Further entrenchment due

Much of the Orioles-Nationals debate has focused on the so-called “battleground” counties of Anne Arundel and Howard in Maryland. And MASN intends to air the games of both teams in a wide area stretching from southern Pennsylvania to North Carolina. But in terms of local, grassroots marketing, the trend over time will be for both teams to keep close to their home cities.

According to industry sources, the Orioles have begun making plans to close their team store at Farragut Square. The team has distribution on Washington radio and over-the-air TV stations, but advertising campaigns that in recent years focused on Washington — they included radio spots and billboards on New York Avenue NE — were not renewed in 2005.

“Historically, this region has been an American League base, and we certainly don’t want to turn our backs on those fans,” Mr. Foss said. “But I think it’s understandable to expect a lot of people to gravitate to what’s closest to them.”

Similarly, the Nationals do not have any presence on a Baltimore radio or over-the-air TV station, and, depending on who buys the team from Major League Baseball this summer, may not in the future.

“We’re not out there in Baltimore, buying ads in the Sun and making a big splash up there,” Mr. Uhlich said. “Our TV territories are mirror images of each other, but beyond that, I think we’re both doing a lot of our own thing.”

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