ANNAPOLIS – On April 14, more than 44,000 people packed Robert F. Kennedy Stadium to watch the Washington Nationals defeat the Arizona Diamondbacks in the first official Major League Baseball game in The District since 1971.
Since that season opener, the Nationals have not sold out any home games.
During two home stands that included 13 games, the Nationals did not regularly fill anything above the lower bowl of RFK. They are averaging just over 30,000 fans per game, which places them in the middle of the pack of the 30 Major League Baseball teams.
The Nationals’ attendance figures are also average when compared to how other teams fared in their first month in new cities in modern MLB history.
They are similar to those of the 1998 Tampa Bay Devil Rays, but are not close to those of the 1998 Arizona Diamondbacks or 1993 Colorado Rockies.
Nationals and MLB officials said they are thrilled with the club’s early attendance figures, though. Given the short period of time they had to sell tickets and other impeding factors, they’ll take a 30,000-fan average.
“We are extremely pleased with the way Washington has drawn to begin the season,” said Patrick Courtney, an MLB spokesman. “Given their circumstances, this is a very good number.”
The Nationals are the first MLB team to relocate since the Washington Senators moved to Arlington, Tex., in 1972, and the seventh to begin play in a new city since 1977.
Three of the six other teams drew considerably better in their first two home stands than the Nationals did.
In 1993, the expansion Rockies and Florida Marlins both drew more than 40,000 fans to every game in April.
In 1998, the expansion Diamondbacks averaged 46,400 fans in their first two home stands; the Devil Rays 31,600.
Those numbers far exceeded the attendance figures of the much earlier expansion Seattle Mariners and Toronto Blue Jays in 1977.
The last relocated team, the Texas Rangers, did even worse, averaging 8,900 fans in their first 11 home games in 1972 after moving from Washington.
The Senators had averaged 8,200 in 1971.
The Nationals club has already sold more than 2 million tickets for the season, said David Cope, vice president of sales and marketing, and has sold about 18,000 full-season tickets and 3,000 partial plans.
The club’s goal is to sell about 2.4 million tickets this season, Cope said, and said they’ll likely exceed that. At their current pace, the Nats will draw about 2.47 million. RFK’s capacity is 45,250, Cope said.
That pace is excellent because of obstacles the Nats have faced, said George Solomon, the former sports editor of The Washington Post who now teaches at the University of Maryland and writes a column for The Post.
MLB only moved the old Montreal Expos to Washington a few months ago because the league dragged its feet and The District’s Council bickered over an agreement to build a new stadium — which MLB demanded to move the club.
The four recent expansion teams each had nearly two years to sell tickets between the time MLB awarded their franchises and opening day.
The Nationals have not received great television exposure. They did not have an agreement to televise any of their games locally until days before the season started and, even after two recent deals were signed, only about half of the club’s 162 games are slated to be shown locally in households without DirecTV.
The club also still lacks an owner, plays in a 44-year-old stadium with few amenities and was predicted to finish last in the division by most sportswriters.
“Considering they had no time to market the team,” Solomon said, “I think they’ve done remarkably well.
“Washington will outdraw Florida this year and Arizona will be close,” Solomon added. “Is it as good of a baseball town as Philadelphia or New York? The answer is probably ‘No’…But the Yankees have had decades and decades to build a tradition.”
The Nationals attendance should pick up as the season continues, baseball officials said.
April and May are usually the slowest months, Courtney said. Teams draw better in the summer when the weather warms up, children are out of school and the local NBA team’s season ends. The Washington Wizards are in the playoffs for only the second time since 1988.
If the Nationals stay in the race, in the National League East division (they are two-and-a-half games out of first), that should also boost attendance, Cope said.
But perhaps the Nats should have drawn better in April, said John Donovan, a baseball writer for SI.com, Sports Illustrated’s Web site.
There were no rainouts in the month, the temperature sometimes surged into the 70s, tickets are as cheap as $7 and the Washington, D.C., metro area has been clamoring for an MLB team for 33 years.
Those factors “maybe should have” created a higher demand for tickets, Donovan said.
Instead thousands of tickets were left unsold by the team and dozens more were not purchased on Web sites such as eBay and Stub Hub.
But with warmer weekends ahead, starting with a three-game series at RFK against the Chicago Cubs May 13-15 (which the Nats have already sold more than 100,000 tickets for), the stadium may be much fuller during the rest of the inaugural season.
Early attendance numbers are not necessarily a harbinger for how a team will draw in the long run. Both Florida and Colorado averaged less than 30,000 fans last year, for example, a mark Seattle has exceeded for nine straight seasons.
“You’re not going to be able to tell a whole lot” about the long-term viability of an MLB franchise in Washington, Donovan said, until the Nationals have played a few seasons in their new stadium, which is scheduled to open in 2008. As for this season, he added, “if they draw 2.5 million, it would be so unbelievably good for them.” – 30 – CNS-5-3-05