- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Paid attendance at Washington Nationals home games has dropped by 30 percent this season, leaving the team to play before some of the most sparse crowds in major league baseball.

Blame the weather, blame the team’s poor play, blame the economy. Whatever the reason, Nationals Park has not been the place to be this spring: Through Sunday, the Nationals reported an average paid attendance of 20,027, about 9,000 fewer fans than they drew in the first eight games last season.

Only the Detroit Tigers, whose fans have been ravaged by the troubles in the auto industry, and the New York Mets, who moved into a smaller ballpark, have suffered a bigger drop in attendance. Only the small-market Kansas City Royals and Pittsburgh Pirates have drawn fewer fans a game.

“When we leave, we appreciate the smaller crowds going home,” said Mark Hornbaker, a season-ticket holder from Poolesville who has been in his seat in Section 220 for every game. “But you want to see a fuller stadium. I’d rather see 30,000 a night.”

Surely, the team’s poor start has been a major reason for the low attendance. The Nationals lost their first seven games of the season, and though they drew more than 40,000 fans on Opening Day, only one crowd since has exceeded 20,000.

“You get off to a bad start like that for a team that didn’t have high expectations to begin with, it just exacerbates the situation and probably makes it worse,” said Bill Sutton, a marketing and revenue consultant for several major league teams. “Now it’s like, ‘Why even go out? They’re already out of it.’ ”

Low attendance could be attributed to a steep decline in season-ticket sales during the offseason. Team officials declined to reveal the size of the club’s season-ticket base, but the announced attendance figures suggest that sales dropped by at least 25 percent from last year even though the team lowered prices for most packages.

Nationals president Stan Kasten declined to discuss the team’s attendance. In past interviews, he has said fans will attend more games as the team’s play improves. “We’ll get the attendance we deserve,” he frequently has said.

Sutton and others cautioned against drawing broad conclusions based on attendance in April, when weather is often questionable and children still are in school. Indeed, the Nationals drew particularly dismal crowds early last week when rain delayed the start of two games.

But the attendance drop is striking when compared to the performance of the rest of major league baseball, which has seen just a 2.3 percent decline in the average number of tickets sold a game compared with the same point last season.

In fact, 14 of the league’s 30 teams have increased attendance so far and five have seen declines of less than 2 percent despite fears that the economic downturn would discourage many fans from buying tickets.

At the season’s start, commissioner Bud Selig announced a special initiative to promote baseball as a low-cost entertainment option, and most clubs introduced special promotions and deep discounts on select games and concessions.

The initiative has not helped everywhere. The Tigers have seen a drop of nearly 11,000 tickets sold a game, the Houston Astros about 4,000 and the Los Angeles Dodgers and Toronto Blue Jays about 6,000 each so far this season. The Mets and Yankees, meanwhile, have had trouble selling many of the most expensive seats at their new ballparks.

Those losses have been offset to a degree elsewhere - many teams have seen noticeable increases in ticket sales.

The reigning World Series champion Philadelphia Phillies have boosted attendance by nearly 5,000 a game, even though they averaged more than 37,000 through the same number of games last year. The defending American League champion Tampa Bay Rays have posted an increase of about 11,000 a game, up to 29,000 from 18,100 through the same number of games last year.

Attendance at Florida Marlins games has increased to more than 23,000 from just over 15,000 at this point last season; attendance at Royals and Pirates games has risen by more than 10 percent.

The Baltimore Orioles have increased ticket sales this season by 1,500 a game (7 percent). The team had a paid attendance of 41,160 on Saturday, with a team-record 12,000 in walk-up sales and another 10,000 buying tickets as part of a promotion involving the Ravens and the NFL Draft.

For the Nationals, there is hope among die-hard fans that better play will lure bigger crowds. But until then, the majority of tickets at Nationals Park could go unsold.

“I think a lot of people won’t come back until they are competing,” Hornbaker said. “But until that happens, they’re really going to have a tough time.”

• Tim Lemke can be reached at tlemke@washingtontimes.com.

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