- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 30, 2008


We’ll all savor the moment this afternoon when Odalis Perez hurls the first pitch of the Washington Nationals’ 2008 regular season in a brand new stadium. But let’s also plan to savor the dividends of a properly managed Nationals franchise — one year hence, two years hence and far into the future.

D.C politicians touted Anacostia waterfront development as the promise of what we considered a reckless $611 million in public funds to finance this stadium. It’s water under the bridge now. But the fact that the politicians never really had the power to ensure area development is not. They merely promised development, but that power actually lies with the Lerner family and Major League Baseball. Good stewardship of the franchise is now key. It will ensure a strong fan base and high attendance which in turn will fuel Anacostia development. Ensuring this outcome is the critical task for D.C. stakeholders who seek the promised benefits. The bloom of construction sites near the stadium right now is testimony to the early good news, but success is not assured. A future of low attendance and anemic development still hang in the balance. The Lerners must invest substantial resources in the club while also playing smart with existing advantages to avoid it. Here are some important variables to watch:

Ticket prices. Maximizing the fan base via proper pricing is key to the future. This means the club must charge the well-heeled segments of Washington fandom a fair market rate while also ensuring attractive options for low- and medium-income families. But the pricing picture right now seems less than optimal to achieve that goal. The best seats in the house, located behind home plate, are underpriced at $80. This compares to $95 for similar seats in San Francisco, $130 in Los Angeles and $325 at Boston’s Fenway Park. The same seat costs $50 in Philadelphia and $55 in Oakland, but this is the nation’s capital. The Nats can command a premium for these seats. Meanwhile, some bleacher seats that could be prime for middle-income fans are overpriced; $39 for many bleacher seats compares poorly with $26 for Boston and $13 at Dodgers Stadium. Middle-income fans could easily conclude that it is simply not worth the effort or price.

Player salaries. Premium salaries for premium players are nearly inevitable in today’s MLB. But the 2007 Nationals ranked 28th among the 30 MLB teams in payroll last season at $37.3 million, very unfitting for the nation’s third-wealthiest metropolitan region by per-capita GDP. This year’s spending is not significantly different. The Nats do not need to spend like the Yankees or Red Sox. But a competitive team builds attendance. The Tampa Bay Devil Rays, Florida Marlins and Pittsburgh Pirates are awful because their miserly owners fail to invest in the franchise. They give the fire-sale treatment to star players and fans are driven away.

Ryan Zimmerman’s salary. The Nats’ emerging star is slated to earn $465,000 this year, $65,000 over last year. General Manager Jim Bowden has called signing Zimmerman to a long-term deal a priority. The Nats must follow through. The trend currently is for MLB’s underpaid young stars to win bigger contracts in the offseason even in cases where clubs are not contractually obligated to offer anything. This is a recognition of value and a gesture of goodwill for the future. The Nats should do the same for their emerging star. Zimmerman is the emerging franchise cornerstone. Club officials told The Washington Times that a six-year, $30 million deal would set the parameters. They would be lucky to score such a bargain. Better to go higher.

The farm system. The best ballclubs develop talent from within in addition to free-agent signings. Here, the signs are good.Baseball America ranks the Nationals farm system as the game’s 9th best (of 30 clubs). This is evidence that the Nationals’ promise to build from the ground up is showing good early returns.

Parking and amenities. Parking is a serious problem; there is exceedingly little. While the Nationals have done a fine job warning Washington of the problem, more must be constructed and creative innovations like the RFK shuttle should be replicated — at the Lerners’ expense.

It may strike outsiders as unusual, but the Nats’ performance on the field truly is an issue of genuine public concern for the sheer reason that so much is riding on it. The $611 million and a better future for the Anacostia waterfront are at stake. Lerner family, don’t let the District down.

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