- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 30, 2012

For months, the District’s money-minders have been rubbing their hands together at the prospect of playoff-driven revenue from the surging Washington Nationals.

The Nats, barring a woeful collapse in their final regular-season series, are inching toward their first-ever National League East title and a date with a fellow division winner or wild-card team in a best-of-five Divisional Series playoff. That means D.C. officials can look forward to the economic boost that October baseball brings, even if quantifying the final windfall is tricky.

For one thing, “there is no relevant history on which to base an estimate,” said David Umansky, a spokesman for D.C. Chief Financial Officer Natwar M. Gandhi. “But certainly, it will be a plus.”

That’s because the Nationals used to be losers, and now they are winners. But a quirk in the 2012 schedule does little to reward the team’s turnaround, specifically in terms of a guaranteed economic boost.

With the advent of a play-in game between the two wild-card teams this year, Major League Baseball changed the best-of-five format from having the more successful team play two games at home, followed by two on the road and one more, if necessary, at home. This year only, the more successful team will play two games on the road and return home for as many as three games. So as it stands, the league-leading Nats will be tarring their bats in some other city to start their postseason run before returning to the District for one to three games, as necessary.

Before the schedule change, the Nats were in line to host at least two home games in the postseason.

D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray, a longtime baseball fan who still plays softball each week, is among those who think the setup is unfair.

“The team with the best record should start at home. They’ve earned that right,” Mr. Gray said Friday through his spokesman. “What’s the point of having a winning record?”

The league’s scheduling decision makes LivingSocial’s pledge on Thursday to pay for late-night Metro service after playoff games even more of a public relations coup with little risk. The company is partially reimbursed based on ridership up to their $29,500 deposit per extended hour — if the service is needed at all — and the situation may only last one day if the Nats do not perform well on the field.

Winning, of course, would change the entire fiscal picture. The Nats could extend their run into the N.L. Championship Series or even the World Series — each are best-of-seven series with the potential for four games in the District — and generate more tax revenue at the stadium and area hotels, shops and restaurants.

Mr. Gandhi’s office announced on Friday that the District finished fiscal 2012 with a $140 million surplus, spearheaded by collections on traffic-camera fines and estate and sales taxes. Sticking to baseball, his office is projecting a handsome boost in revenue from a special sales tax — roughly 10 percent on tickets, merchandise and concessions — during the regular season at Nationals Park, which has enjoyed a swell in attendance this year. That’s because the team on the field, after a string of losing seasons since the franchise moved from Montreal to the nation’s capital in 2005, is buoyed by a stellar pitching rotation, veteran talent like Jayson Werth and Ryan Zimmerman and surging stars like Ian Desmond and Bryce Harper.

D.C. officials estimate that revenue this season will outpace last year’s figures and put the city in a better position to pay down the massive debt it took on to build the stadium on the bank of the Anacostia River.

Nationals Park has been a lightning rod for criticism and political wrangling since it opened in 2008. Its financing included a substantial contribution from the District, mostly through $535 million in bonds that the city committed to repay in 30 years.

Any true acceleration of the pay-down of stadium debt, officials say, will take years of sustained interest in the team and the ballpark’s comforts.

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