- The Washington Times - Monday, April 6, 2009

The Washington Nationals enter this season under pressure not just to win more games but also to capture the attention of a disillusioned and financially fragile fan base.

The opening of Nationals Park last season piqued fan interest for a while, but attendance often was lower than expected as the club plummeted to the worst record in the majors. Ratings on television and radio were the lowest in all of baseball.

Poor play on the field, poor service at the ballpark and the overall management of the club were the subject of frequent complaints.

Now, that fan dismay is compounded by a recession that has battered disposable incomes.

“I think a lot of ticket holders were so angry about the lack of quality play last year that they canceled their plans or downgraded them,” said Leon Lawrence, a magazine design director from Fairfax. “By the end of last season I had a hard time giving my tickets away to games I couldn’t make.”

Lawrence said he’ll likely cut the number of games he attends this season to eight from 15 last year.

His story is typical - particularly among fans facing tougher financial circumstances.

“Ticket sales will be down in most places, and that’s to be expected,” said Nationals President Stan Kasten, who declined to say exactly how much sales have dipped. “But I really think we have a role to play in helping because we are, have always been, and now will more than ever before be the most affordable entertainment alternative there is.”

The Nationals reduced prices in many sections of the ballpark by as much as 30 percent, even as most teams kept prices flat or increased them slightly. The team also offered staggered payment plans on season tickets for the first time and introduced eight-, 11- and 12-game miniplans.

The team, meanwhile, used funds from a settlement with the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission to expand the Red Porch restaurant in center field and also introduced a new concession provider, Levy Restaurants, with promises to improve service.

The club’s troubles extended to the airwaves, where the Nationals drew an average of only 8,000 households - and the worst ratings of any team in the majors.

The Mid-Atlantic Sports Network this season will introduce a host of changes designed to lure more viewers.

The network is increasing the number of games broadcast in high-definition to 105 - up from 40 last season - and now has a dedicated HD channel available on most area cable and satellite providers that will show at least one Orioles or Nationals game every day of the season.

MASN hired former Cincinnati Reds pitcher Rob Dibble as an analyst in place of Don Sutton, who returned to work with the Atlanta Braves. The network also introduced a new ad campaign and moved its live pregame and postgame shows to a set on the Nationals Park concourse.

The Nationals’ most effective selling points, however, are the club’s offseason moves, which included the signing of slugging outfielder Adam Dunn and an aggressive pursuit of third baseman Mark Teixeira.

Most fans viewed the two-year, $20 million contract for Dunn as a smart, financially prudent decision. They gave the club credit for going after Teixeira, who eventually signed with the Yankees. And they were encouraged by the progress of the team’s young pitchers.

But discontent remains.

Fans were irked by an embarrassing offseason scandal that involved the scouting and signing of players in the Dominican Republic. They also said the team must do better at customer service and reaching out to ticketholders.

“Besides mass e-mails and ticket requests, they have made no effort to reach out to the season ticket holders, especially ones who have been with the club since the first season,” said Michael Radford, a security specialist from Alexandria who shares four season tickets with a group of friends. “We debated not renewing our tickets this season because the tickets seemed high for the product they put on the field and lack of organization within the stadium.

“I understand there [will be] growing pains, but this is still my hard-earned money I’m pumping into the organization. Apology after apology can only go so far.”

But winning cures a lot of problems, and a successful season likely would soothe the mind of Mark Hornbaker of Poolesville, Md., who in January bought a full season ticket package just before he was laid off from his job in the financial services sector.

“Maybe I should have known a little better, but you don’t normally think something like that is going to happen,” said Hornbaker, 47. “But I’ll try to use this as an opportunity to network with some people I don’t know already, and it will take me away from the stress of sitting around the computer and sending resumes out and not getting any phone calls back.”


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