- The Washington Times - Monday, April 14, 2008

There’s been a lot of talk in the last week about attendance at Nationals Park. Or rather, the lack thereof.

To be sure, Washington Nationals fans hardly packed the place during in the first full homestand. Following a sellout on Opening Night, the next four games each drew less than 30,000 fans. Average attendance so far is 28,214, which ranks 20th in the majors.

So this isn’t exactly the toughest ticket in town to procure.

But just as the Nationals haven’t gone into full-blown panic mode over their performance on the field, no one should do it over their performance in the stands.

A brand-new ballpark is nice and all, but it doesn’t do you much good when you carry a nine-game losing streak into yesterday’s matinee. With a few notable exceptions, baseball attendance is based not on the quality of the ballpark but on the quality of the home team.

Recent history confirms it. Nine other major league franchises have opened new parks this decade. Five of them drew an average of more than 35,000 a game in their inaugural seasons (the Giants, Cardinals, Phillies, Padres and Astros). All but the Astros had winning records that first season, and Houston was coming off three straight division titles when it moved into Enron Field in 2000.

The four clubs that drew less than 35,000 fans a game (the Brewers, Pirates, Reds and Tigers) all had losing records. So barring an impressive turn of events over the next 5½ months, the Nationals shouldn’t expect to crack that landmark 35,000 figure.

A more reasonable goal for this season would be 2.4 million, which roughly equates to 30,000 a game. The Nationals should be able to reach those numbers, counting on the traditional summer spike when the temperature rises and school lets out.

A few things were learned after this first homestand on South Capitol Street, some good, some bad.

All that paranoia over parking and traffic appears to have been overblown. Few fans who bought parking passes near the ballpark, took Metro to the Navy Yard station or took advantage of the free RFK Stadium shuttle have offered up significant complaints to this point.

Perhaps the casual fans the Nationals so desperately covet will start hearing it’s not a nightmare getting to the park, a message that was repeatedly pounded into everyone’s heads over the winter (yes, by the media but also by the Nationals, who so aggressively pushed Metro use that fans became convinced it was impossible to drive to a ballgame).

It’s also evident that the organization seriously overestimated how much fans are willing to spend to sit in the lower decks of a stadium, brand-new or not.

Anyone who attended the full homestand can tell you where the bulk of the empty seats were (and probably will continue to be) at Nationals Park: in the outfield and right behind the plate in the President’s and Diamond Clubs.

While the uppermost decks of the stadium were filled with fans perfectly happy to spend anywhere from $5 to $24 to see baseball from high above the field, the first and second decks beyond the right-field fence were virtually empty. Perhaps the fact those far-away seats cost anywhere from $27 to $35 had something to do with it.

Then again, the Nationals are having just as much trouble selling the best seats in the house. The President’s Club seats right behind the plate (price: $325) and the Diamond Club seats directly behind that (price: $170) didn’t appear to be even half-full for any game this week.

So every time they show a highlight on “Baseball Tonight,” viewers are treated to a spectacular view of the pitcher, the batter, the catcher, the umpire … and a bunch of empty blue seats. Not the best way to promote your organization.

In time, perhaps the Nationals will adjust their prices and actually make those seats semi-affordable. And in time, perhaps the minor kinks around the ballpark (including a scoreboard that can’t seem to make it through a single game without some kind of malfunction) will be worked out.

Until then, everyone can exhale a bit and at least be content that the first week of baseball at Nationals Park has established that a reasonable (though not spectacular) number of fans will turn out to watch what to date has been a subpar home team in a perfectly satisfactory (though again not spectacular) facility.

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