- The Washington Times - Monday, July 25, 2011

The top-selling Nationals jersey of all time belongs to a player who has spent barely two months in Washington.

After Stephen Strasburg made his first major league start in June 2010, his jersey became the most popular in MLB for the month, with more than 78,000 sales by July 1. The expectations surrounding him crashed to a halt when he underwent Tommy John surgery in September after being injured the previous month. But until Strasburg was placed on the DL, the Nationals drew an average of 15,564 more fans to home games he started.

Despite the frenzy caused by the phenom, the team’s executives understand that marketing requires an approach that transcends a single player. Strasburg’s pitching adds excitement to a game, but he cannot single-handedly bear responsibility for lifting attendance. Only a contending team on the field and an outstanding overall gameday experience will keep fans coming to the stadium - and the Nationals hope they will soon be able to offer both.

“The park is already a great venue,” chief operating officer Andy Feffer. “But to create added value within that experience - to say, ‘Im coming back, this is a great place to be - that’s a difficult thing to do in a crowded marketplace.”

This year’s MLB attendance leader, Philadelphia, draws an average of 45,482 by providing fans the ideal combination of team and venue. The Phillies have made the playoffs each year since 2007, winning the 2008 World Series, and currently have the best record in baseball. Still, one key to their ticket sales is the opening of a new stadium in 2004.

“Philadelphia has always been a great baseball town, but while playing in Veterans Stadium prior to 2004 our fan base consisted primarily of baseball ‘diehards’ and families,” said Michael Harris, director of marketing and special projects. “In Citizens Bank Park, we’ve certainly enjoyed a general expansion of our fan base and a resurgence in the younger demographic attending our games.”

The appeal of Citizens Bank Park was immediately apparent. Average attendance at Phillies games increased from 28,973 in 2003 to 40,626 in 2004, although the team won 86 games in both seasons and did not make the playoffs.

Another, more recent, example of positive fan response to a new stadium was the opening of Target Field in Minnesota last year. After nearly three decades in the Metrodome, the Twins drew an average of 39,798 fans in 2010, up from 29,446 in 2009.

“Almost every new ballpark, early on, fans want to come out and see the new facility and experience a new setting and, in our case, we had almost two generations of fans who had never experienced outdoor baseball, at least at a big-league level,” said Patrick Klinger, vice president of marketing for the Twins. “Attendance has been extraordinarily strong.”

When Nationals Park opened three years ago, Washington’s sinking attendance figures from RFK Stadium temporarily revived, increasing by nearly 5,000 fans per game from 24,217 in 2007 to 29,205 in 2008. But after the team inaugurated the new park with a 59-win season, average attendance plummeted to 22,715 in 2009.

Contrast the Nats with the Diamondbacks, a franchise that played its first season in 1998 and won the World Series in just its fourth year of existence. Following the championship, attendance in Arizona jumped from 33,881 in 2001 to 39,515 in 2002.

“In the early years, the marketing of the team leveraged the built-in excitement that was created when the city was awarded a franchise,” said Kari Bohn, senior director of marketing. “The early successes of the team were also a common marketing theme.”

Washington does not have any early successes to point to, but the slogan “Expect It” captures management’s expectations for a bright future. With a 46-46 mark at the All-Star Break, the Nationals showed improvement over their 39-50 record at that time a year ago. Although no individual has Strasburg’s drawing power, the team is stocked with talented players.

Take Jordan Zimmermann, selected by the Nationals in the second round of the 2007 draft, who has a 3.00 ERA. Or rookie second baseman Danny Espinosa, chosen in the third round in 2008, whose 17 home runs and 55 RBI are tied with Michael Morse for the team lead. Or Drew Storen, drafted in the first round in 2009 and already an impact closer with 25 saves. The success of a group of stars, not one, holds the key to bringing fans to the ballpark.

“It cant be one person that will change the core,” Feffer said. “Its a bit of a cliche, but in baseball its truer than in any other sport. From a marketing perspective, you dont want to take one guy or two guys and make them the face [of the team]. Theyre important elements, but it requires much more.”

One of baseball’s biggest stars, Albert Pujols, has been described as the face of the Cardinals. But even in his case, the marketing strategy in St. Louis is to draw attention to the success of the team.

“The cover of our media guide is a perfect example,” said Dan Farrell, senior vice president of sales and marketing. “In 2009, we won the NL Central, so that championship logo was on our media guide. Albert Pujols was the NL MVP - he’s on the cover of our media guide. Yadier Molina and Adam Wainwright both won Gold Gloves - they’re on the cover of the media guide. Chris Carpenter won the NL Comeback Player of the Year award - he’s on the media guide. And Whitey Herzog, our manager from the ‘80s, was inducted into the Hall of Fame in that offseason, and he’s on the cover.”

Few franchises have had better attendance over the years than the Cardinals. St. Louis has drawn more than 3 million fans every season since 1987, excluding the strike-shortened 1994. It also boasts a tradition success, including six playoff appearances and one World Series title in the past 10 seasons. As long as fans expect wins, the Cardinals will continue to fill Busch Stadium.

The Nationals have worked toward building a competitive franchise, and they have complemented on-field improvements by upgrading other aspects of the ballpark. In response to fan requests for a wider variety of dining options, the park offers vegetarian and gluten-free options in addition to more traditional fare. On Saturdays, bands perform on the Miller Lite Scoreboard Walk before the game.

Feffer said the Nationals will continue to respond to fan feedback.

“The ability each year to address those wants and desires, to bring something new and fresh to the park, to talk about changing menus but still have the basic ballpark fare, is important,” Feffer said. “This is one of the ways to stand out.”

For a team to draw fans, it must be able to market a ballpark experience that is worth the money and time. The Cleveland Indians’ ability to communicate their appeal led to a then-major league record 455 consecutive sellouts between 1995 and 2001.

“Baseball’s all about connection to the people you’re with, all about connection to the field,” Indians president Mark Shapiro said. “The atmosphere and environment at a baseball game - while it still can be followed on television, the experience cannot be re-created in someone’s living room.”

Cleveland’s success in selling tickets can be attributed to a new stadium, Jacobs Field, that opened in 1994, and a run of six playoff appearances in seven years. Since the sellout streak ended in 2001, the Indians have made the playoffs once, although they are contending for the AL Central title. They drew an average of only 21,106 last year.

In Washington, the ballpark and the team have upgraded continually. The Nationals have played like a playoff team at times this season, particularly during a stretch in June when they won 12 of 13 games. The players, during that run, expected a victory. With the star power of Strasburg added to a talented core next year, fans will “Expect It” too.

When they do, Nationals Park hopes to see new highs in win totals and at the turnstiles.



Click to Read More

Click to Hide