- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 30, 2009

It’s tough for people to get excited about the Washington Nationals now. Team officials are trying, but getting fans to fill seats at Nationals Park is a tough chore when wins are as rare as sightings of Halley’s Comet.

Winning cures everything. There are only a handful of teams that can withstand multiple losing seasons without a significant drop in attendance. But a glance at the activities of other teams in major league baseball and conversations with fans reveal that there are number of things the team can do to position itself for bigger crowds once the victories start coming:

Focus on the kids -The biggest challenge for the Nationals is that many adults in the area grew up rooting for other teams or no team at all. So there needs to be strong attention placed on young fans who will grow up with team. The Family Fun Days are a good start, and the Nationals have invested heavily in the kids entertainment area beyond center field. But the giveaways directed toward kids are a bit scarce. Moreover, some parents report that the Junior Nationals Fan Club could be better promoted and were a bit disappointed to learn that it does not include tickets, only buy-one-get-one-free coupons. (The Junior Orioles Dugout Club, which is similarly priced, comes with 10 general admission tickets for the kids, and parents can buy tickets for $6.) These types of efforts will help in building a loyal fan base.

Care what people think- One of the knocks on the Nationals’ owners, fairly or unfairly, is that they’ve been more interested in making a buck than making a good impression. Things like challenging the city on rent payments or holding an annual charitable gala in Prince George’s County have led many people to believe they are a bit tone-deaf.

But the Nationals did the right thing by lowering ticket prices in most sections of the stadium, and their hiring of Levy Restaurants was a clear attempt to improve service. By many accounts, the quality of food and friendliness of staff is better than it was last year, and the experience of attending a game - quality of team notwithstanding - is a better value. The Nationals’ new partnership with Force 3 to honor the military during six games this season is great, as is the new partnership with D.C. Public Schools to allow high school players to practice on the Nationals Park field. The team should continue these efforts; they prevent fans from getting disillusioned with the organization as a whole.

Embrace the local competitors - One thing the Nationals could do better is embrace the city’s other sports teams, particularly the Capitals. The Nationals have shown a willingness to do this in the past but could do more. How about “Caps Night” at Nationals Park, with the team handing out baseball caps of both the Caps and Nationals? How about showing Caps playoff game highlights on the big screen? The Baltimore Orioles have had great success with promotions involving the Ravens in recent years, recognizing that fans can root for more than one local team at a time. A rising tide helps all ships, and the Nationals should look for ways to capitalize on the success of their peers.

Get creative-The Nationals, like all teams, have a lot of promotions and giveaways. T-shirt Tuesdays have proved popular in most places, and fireworks nights are always big. But there’s nothing else on the promotional schedule that would persuade a fan to attend a game. Beach towels? Gym bags? Kids run the bases? A team photo? Nice but not particularly innovative. Given their play on the field, the Nationals need to squeeze in some promotions that are designed to impress.

Sign Stephen Strasburg-Enough said.

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