- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 18, 2006

It was the final day of the 2005 baseball season, and RFK Stadium was awash in good vibes. A boisterous crowd of 36,491 gave the Washington Nationals a five-minute standing ovation as they walked off the field, and all those in attendance had every reason to believe even better days were ahead.

The much-anticipated lease on the club’s new Anacostia riverfront ballpark would surely be finalized in a matter of weeks. That would be followed by the franchise’s sale by Major League Baseball (MLB) to one of nine competing ownership groups.

Ground would be broken on the new stadium. A permanent general manager and manager would be named. High-priced free agents would all want to sign with the Nationals. The club’s makeshift television deal would be drastically improved to make all games available to all viewers in the area. And optimism among Washington baseball fans would reach peak levels as the 2006 season drew near.

Four-and-a-half months later, none of that has happened.

The new ballpark is closer to becoming reality, but remains in a highly volatile stage. There’s no new owner in charge and likely won’t be before Opening Day. Club employees still feel like interim employees. And loyal fans can expect to see fewer games on TV this season, not more.

As pitchers and catchers reported yesterday to the Nationals’ spring training complex in Viera, Fla., there was a sense of familiarity in the air. Has anything really changed since the last time they were seen on a baseball field? Are they starting from scratch again?

Has all the good will built up last summer by the return of baseball dissipated?

“You want to be using the off-season to generate momentum. And nothing has happened, from the stadium issue on down, to give much acceleration to that momentum,” said Paul Swangard, managing director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon. “For every step forward, it seems like they’ve taken two steps backward.”

Bad vibrations

Nationals President Tony Tavares is the first to acknowledge his organization’s problems, both real and perceived. This is nothing new for Mr. Tavares, who has run the club on behalf of MLB since the league took control of the former Montreal Expos in 2002.

The challenge, then, facing Mr. Tavares and the Nationals as they prepare for their second season in the District is to convince the general public that the club’s success in 2005 was no fluke and that baseball is indeed here to stay.

“There’s a good bit of negativity out there surrounding the team,” Mr. Tavares said during a recent interview in his office at RFK. “This whole harangue about the lease negotiations … creates a doubt in potential ticket holders’ minds. I think it causes people to say, ‘Do I really want to make the emotional investment in a team if I don’t know if they’re going to be here?’ That’s why I’m just hoping that [the stadium issue] gets settled quickly, so we can get over that hump and move forward.”

It’s been a tough sell so far. The Nationals sold the equivalent of 22,500 full-season ticket plans last year. They only expect about 80 percent (or 18,000) of those ticket holders to renew this year.

A drop-off in attendance would hardly be unique in Washington’s case. Professional sports teams on average expect to lose about 10 percent of their season-ticket base during their second year of operation, usually because the novelty wears off.

But what is unique to the Nationals’ situation is the overwhelming public perception — fueled all winter by the ongoing stadium saga — that MLB might relocate the team once again.

“Rather than the focus being on all the great things about having baseball in the market, it’s become about the rejustification of whether baseball should even be in the market and under what terms,” Mr. Swangard said. “That story line can’t help but undermine consumers’ enthusiasm for putting their money down on the product.”

Mr. Swangard, who analyzes these things for a living, said never before in the world of professional sports has there been a situation quite like this.

“We’re probably writing a new case study as we go,” he said. “I guess, give credit to D.C. for doing something yet again unique and out of the box.”

Deja vu, again

It’s been a frustrating off-season for Nationals employees, players and fans alike. For those who have been with the organization since its days in Montreal, there’s been an eerie sense of deja vu all winter.

“It seems like it’s just the same story over and over again,” catcher Brian Schneider said. “We’re still talking about ownership. We’re still talking about a stadium. Hopefully, we’re not talking about this too much longer.”

Longtime Washington baseball fans know the feeling. They saw the Senators leave town twice, in 1960 and again in 1971, and they fear history repeating itself.

“They might break our hearts again,” said Chris Alvord, a season-ticket holder from Arlington. “A lot of my friends are season-ticket holders who did not renew because they’re concerned about the uncertainty. They think the District is going to [wreck] this deal. And can you blame them for being hesitant? Look at what’s been going on.”

Mr. Alvord was one of hundreds of fans who lined up outside a Pentagon City restaurant last month for a team-sponsored autograph signing. Men and women, boys and girls, from all parts of the community, gathered during the middle of January for a chance to meet Nationals players such as Schneider and right fielder Jose Guillen.

They wore red-and-blue team caps, jerseys of their favorite players, jackets emblazoned with “Washington” across the chest. Some were old enough to have gone to Senators games at Griffith Stadium. Others made their major-league debuts last season at RFK.

It all served as a reminder, albeit a brief one, that baseball truly did capture the hearts of countless fans across the region a year ago. Trouble is, those kind of scenes have been few and far between since the season ended in October, overwhelmed by images of D.C Council members debating into the night about how much to cap spending on the team’s new ballpark.

Scotch tape, bubble gum

It hasn’t helped matters that the Nationals held only a handful of public events this winter with very little fanfare. Mr. Tavares concedes the club’s marketing effort has been subpar, but places much of the blame for that on a lack of staffing and all the time he and Executive Vice President Kevin Uhlich have been forced to spend working on stadium negotiations and design.

The organization has been without a vice president of sales and marketing since early November and didn’t start seriously looking for a replacement until recently because Mr. Tavares didn’t want to hire someone when it looked like a new owner might be on the verge of taking over.

“We really did not do a good job of marketing last year,” Mr. Tavares said. “We all know that. And by the way, that’s not a shot at my marketing department. They didn’t have anything to deal with. Everything was done on the fly. We really had a difficult time getting the message out. The radio and television situations were not positives in helping us market the team. I think we’re in much better shape this year.”

The club will begin its new marketing campaign — “Washington Nationals baseball: Make it your pastime” — in a couple of weeks. Fans will begin seeing commercials on television, hearing them on the radio and seeing them in newspapers.

“There will be a more consistent look,” Mr. Tavares said. “And you’ll see it a lot more than you did last year.”

Single-game tickets will go on sale around the same time (March 6). And that’s when Mr. Tavares expects fan interest and enthusiasm in the club to pick up once again.

The team is projecting only a slight decrease in total attendance this year, 2.6 million instead of 2.7 million. Season-ticket totals will certainly be down considerably, but the Nationals believe they can make up for most of that difference with a renewed emphasis on selling single-game tickets and particularly day-of-game tickets.

Ticket prices have remained mostly the same, though seats will cost more for 11 designated “premium” home games: Opening Day against the New York Mets on April 11, weekend series against the popular New York Yankees, Baltimore Orioles and Chicago Cubs, plus the Oct. 1 season finale against the Mets.

For some of the less-attractive matchups, the Nationals hope to entice fans with as many as 20 promotional giveaway days after holding only a handful in 2005.

The overall fan experience at RFK, though, doesn’t figure to be much different in Year 2. Fans often complained last season about long lines (and sometimes a lack of food) at concession stands, a hard-to-read scoreboard and small video replay screen, and a public-address system that was too loud in some parts of the stadium and barely audible in others.

The Nationals are well-aware of the complaints and have sought to improve what they can. They plan to overstock the most-popular concession stands to avoid running out of hot dogs, beer and nachos, and the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission (which operates the facility) has promised to do a better job of cleaning the stadium.

But there’s only so much improvement that can be done on a stadium that opened in 1961 and has only a few more years of service left in it.

“Overall, it’ll be a smoother operation,” Mr. Tavares said. “But this is still a 45-year-old building. Unfortunately, there’s always going to be a little bit of Scotch tape and bubble gum that goes along with this.”

Broadcast blues

The fan experience last season wasn’t only a problem for those inside RFK, though. If you weren’t among the average crowd of 33,728 at a ballgame, you probably had a hard time watching or listening to it from your home or car.

The Nationals’ broadcasting deal, cobbled together at the last minute, was perhaps the worst in all of baseball. The club’s flagship radio stations, FM-104.1 and AM-1050, weren’t sent out on strong signals and couldn’t be picked up in many nearby suburbs.

“I can’t get the signal,” D.C. resident Billy Vigdor said. “I’m a big radio fan. I love listening to games. But the signal was horrible.”

The Nationals believe they have solved that problem by moving their games to AM-1500 (a 50,000-watt giant that can be heard along a large part of the East Coast) and FM-107.7. The format of those stations — news and talk, as opposed to pop music or federal news — should be more conducive to attracting sports fans as well.

The ability to watch games on television, though, won’t be any better than it was a year ago (and worse in some cases). The area’s major cable system, Comcast, continues to refuse to include the newly created Mid-Atlantic Sports Network on its programming lineup because of its ongoing legal battle with the network (the majority of which is owned by the Baltimore Orioles).

Thus, MASN will once again be available only to the handful of local customers who subscribe to either DirecTV, tiny RCN Cable or Verizon’s new fiber-optics TV service. And the number of games broadcast over the air on Channels 20 and 5 is expected to be reduced from last year’s total of 79.

The ongoing lack of TV exposure has Nationals fans seething.

“I live in Arlington. I have Comcast,” Mr. Alvord said. “And the games they’re showing me are Baltimore games. [The Nationals] have to have a better TV deal.”

As dire as the situation may sound, in most respects the Nationals as an organization think they are in better shape than they were a year ago. They expect to once again make a profit in 2006, though not as much as in 2005. They have a full year of experience and feel much more comfortable as they enter their sophomore season. The “organized chaos” that Mr. Tavares said surrounded the organization last season is close to becoming only “organized.”

And a baseball club that has endured through more than four seasons of neglect, a lack of money and a lack of staff finds itself once again determined to prove the doubters wrong.

“This team has been presented with more hurdles, both on a business and a baseball front, than probably any team in the history of the game,” Mr. Tavares said. “And what I’m proud of most is that we all pull together and say, ‘You know what, who cares?’

“If we sit here and think of ourselves in some pathetic way, we wouldn’t succeed. Instead, we’ve just put it in back of us and moved on. We’re not going to change it. It is what it is. Let’s just try to do the best we can. I think that’s the way you have to do this.”

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