The Washington Nationals will end the season Wednesday as the worst team in baseball.
There may be no better example today of a rebuilding club than the Nationals, who made that fact crystal clear on Aug. 2 when they traded 23-year-old superstar Juan Soto to further entrench the team in the cellar.
However, despite the painful rebuild, the Nationals still eclipsed the 2 million attendance mark for the season.
This season, 2,026,401 fans paid for tickets to watch the 100-plus-loss Nationals — barely down from the 2.25 million in 2019. Washington will likely end the campaign ranked 17th in MLB attendance — just one spot worse than three years ago when the club won its first World Series.
The Nationals were still a draw in 2022, but convincing fans to make the trip to Navy Yard will be harder next season.
A look at rebuilding MLB franchises in the last 15 years shows a consistent trend: The first year of a reboot rarely causes a significant dip in attendance. Fans seem to be willing to forgive a team for one bad season. It’s the second year of a retool that hits teams right in the ticket counter.
Take the Houston Astros as an example.
The Astros’ reset — dreadful to start, but extremely successful since 2015 with six playoff appearances, three World Series bids and one championship — began in 2011.
The team’s paid attendance that year was 2.06 million — only slightly down from the 2.33 million from the previous campaign despite the Astros losing an MLB-worst 106 games.
Compared to the rest of the league, the Astros only fell from 16th to 19th from 2010 to 2011. But 2012 — the second year of Houston’s retool — was when the franchise saw a large dip in fan interest, as attendance fell 22% to 1.6 million for an Astros team that lost 107 games. Just five seasons after ranking 10th in the majors, the Astros had fallen to 28th. (MLB attendance figures are not how many fans are actually in seats but rather how many tickets were sold.)
After the Astros, the next most popular example of a reboot — one that may finally be coming to fruition after a surprising above-.500 record this year — is the Baltimore Orioles.
The Nationals’ rival went from being one of the best teams in the American League from 2012 to 2016 to one of the worst clubs in MLB history in 2018 with a 47-115 record. After passing the 2 million mark for six straight years, Baltimore’s attendance fell 35% from 2017 to 2019. Baltimore drew only 1.3 million fans in its 108-loss 2019 campaign, ranking third-to-last in the big leagues.
The Nationals are hardly the only rebuilding club in baseball. Taking a step back to hopefully take two steps forward is all the rage in today’s MLB, with a significant portion of medium and small market franchises utilizing the strategy.
The Arizona Diamondbacks, for instance, began their retool in the COVID-19-shortened 2020 season. Fans weren’t allowed in ballparks that year due to the pandemic, and the 2021 figures were also skewed due to the coronavirus. However, the hit that the Diamondbacks took at the box office in 2021 — the second season of their reset — was much worse than other MLB teams.
After surpassing the 2 million mark every season since becoming an MLB team in 1998, the Diamondbacks drew only 1.04 million fans last year — a 51% drop from the pre-pandemic 2019 campaign — for the 24th lowest total in the majors.
But maybe none of those examples are transferable to the Nationals. Maybe D.C. fans, who have to deal with the losing ways of the Commanders and the Wizards, are willing to give the local nine more slack.
However, this has happened once before in the District.
The current reboot is general manager Mike Rizzo’s second at the helm of the Nationals. His first began in 2008, when Washington drew 2.32 million fans despite losing 102 games. The following year saw a 21% dip in attendance to 1.81 million — 24th worst in the majors.
The same could happen in 2023 if the Nationals can’t rebound and prevent a fourth-straight losing season.