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Bracing for an Attendance Meltdown

Attendance throughout professional sports has been on a steady decline during the recession, with some markets (the NHL in Columbus and NBA in Minneapolis, for example) scrambling to create unique ticket packages aimed at bringing in lower-income buyers.

Well, baseball is no different, but thanks to an expected steep decline for quality on the field by teams in some of the game's weakest markets, the hit could be even worse than most are bracing for.

That's the picture painted by ESPN's Peter Gammons in a blog post on the site this morning, and the numbers are startling. Led by franchises like the Padres, Blue Jays, Astros and Rockies, Gammons projects that league-wide attendance could drop a full 20 percent -- or more -- given the recession and poor play of those franchises.

What does that mean in bottom line? Hundreds of millions of dollars for the league, to be sure.

Make no mistake, the big market teams in established baseball cities -- both New York clubs, Boston and the Chicago teams (but mostly the Cubs), among others -- will be insulated by rabid fan bases and constant ticket demand. Everyone else will have to fight to sell even a portion of the tickets they have in years past.

How does this affect the Nationals? Well, considering the fact that seats weren't exactly hard to come by at a brand-spanking new Nationals Park last year, it paints a pretty grim picture for 2009, all Adam Dunn blasts aside. Can Washington reasonably assume it will hit any of the projections it set for this season a couple of years ago? That seems doubtful.

Hey, maybe I'm wrong. You tell me: Will the Nationals -- and baseball writ large -- struggle to fill parks this season? And how much would tickets have to drop to get you to show up every day, or at the very least more often than you plan on already?

By Cameron Smith  |  March 9, 2009; 12:57 PM ET
Categories:  Astros , Blue Jays , Padres , Rockies  
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In my opinion, the Nationals have done more than their fare share to earn whatever precipitous drop in attendance they incur. They treated most individual season ticket holding fans (even those of us who were there from the beginning in 2005) as if we were lower citizens, pushing us in some cases entire sections up and away from our seats in RFK. Meanwhile if you were a corporation, you kept and in some cases improved your season tickets.

Combine that with about 33% increase in ticket prices from 2005-2008, a catastrophic drop of quality on the field from 2005's first place team (at the all star break) to last year's debacle of AAA talent on the field. And to some extent the lack of any attempt to improve the team (up until the Dunn signing) this offseason.

I canceled my tickets long before the economic woes started. In fact, i don't know a single "individual" season ticket holder who DID renew their seats this year, mostly for my points above.

Mr Lerner: you own a team that was GIVEN a $600M property in a city that is in the top 5 in terms of populance and wealth in the US. Yet your payroll is in the bottom fifth and we constantly hear rumors about how you make your staff justify $5 purchases. Learn how to run a professional sports franchise, act like you care, and start spending money to improve the product on the field before this team becomes the Pittsburgh Pirates for the next 20 years.

Posted by: tboss | March 9, 2009 1:39 PM | Report abuse

Attendance will definitely drop in the "regular" team markets. But I can't imagine 20%. Hockey and the NBA haven't seen that have they? They are about to finish a whole season in a recession.

Posted by: Avar | March 9, 2009 2:01 PM | Report abuse

Assuming that you want feedback from those who aren't season ticket holders (i.e., "lower citizens" of the upper deck), I plan to buy about the same number of tickets as I have since baseball returned to DC in 2005.

Combined purchases for the two (sometimes three) individuals in my "self-made mini plan group" have tended to be about equivalent to a one-person 20-game plan annually. Actually, more than that because we pay full price.

Posted by: natsfan1a1 | March 9, 2009 2:20 PM | Report abuse

"I canceled my tickets long before the economic woes started. In fact, i don't know a single "individual" season ticket holder who DID renew their seats this year"

Then allow me to introduce myself. Two seats, renewed for 2009. Never any doubt about it either.

Posted by: nunof1 | March 9, 2009 2:29 PM | Report abuse

I also renewed my 20 game plan. I go because I enjoy the time with my family, away from the distractions at home or work. But I don't see myself going to more games than that, regardless of how good the team is, or how cheap the tickets are. The Nats need to grow the fanbase, and until they can generate some excitement around the team, I don't see it happening.

Posted by: psubman | March 9, 2009 2:40 PM | Report abuse

if opening day sales are any indication, the Nats are in for a severe decline in attendance this year. Tickets are still available in virtually every section and they have been on sale for more than a week now. Pretty sad. I have no sympathy for the Lerner's though. They deserve this after the way they have treated Nats fans.

Posted by: ryancolaianni | March 9, 2009 2:42 PM | Report abuse

Me and my three friends renewed our 20-game plan and some other friends, who have 4 seats, also renewed.

tboss, no need to be so dramatic. 2008 is over. And no, they weren't GIVEN a stadium. The team leases it.

Posted by: NatsNut | March 9, 2009 3:01 PM | Report abuse

That said, yes, I absolutely think there will be significant decline in attendance. But I also think the team will win a lot more, so hopefully it won't be a 20% decline.

Posted by: NatsNut | March 9, 2009 3:02 PM | Report abuse

Tickets for the wizards often sell for 10 dollars anywhere in the upper deck and 20-30 dollars for great lower seats (via craigslist). This is a huge deduction from the price of a normal seat. I plan on going to games but I am going to look to buy them at a huge discount and stay away from the Red Sox Series. There is going to be a huge discrepancy between tickets sold and tickets used.

Posted by: Natstural | March 9, 2009 3:05 PM | Report abuse

It benefits EVERYONE for the Nats to be more creative with their ticket plans. The O's are great at it. In the past, they have had Summer Sundays (Sunday games only) plans, all-you-can-eat section, 4 game plans, etc. I don't think you have to go as far to give away tickets for someone's birthday (as they are currently doing). But the Lerners could be WAY better at marketing and creating special ticket plans than they currently are.

Posted by: bascomb | March 9, 2009 3:10 PM | Report abuse

"But the Lerners could be WAY better at marketing and creating special ticket plans than they currently are."

Are you aware of the new mini-plans the Nats have introduced recently? Apparently not, so please check out this link:

And from what Stan Kasten said at the NatsFest a few weeks ago, there will be more of this type of thing coming. All-you-can-eat sections, etc.

Posted by: nunof1 | March 9, 2009 3:19 PM | Report abuse

"Are you aware of the new mini-plans the Nats have introduced recently? Apparently not, so please check out this link:"

This underscores bascomb's point. If you need to visit the Nats' site to find out about the new plans, the team isn't going to expand it's presence in the area. Most casual fans don't visit the team site. They need to saturate local TV, print, Web & radio with ads if they want to compete locally. For some reason - either stupidity, contempt, or complacency - the team still has no real marketing presence in DC.

And the city did give them a stadium, so let's cut all the semantic wrangling. The team has not held up its end of the bargain, and I am writing exclusively about their off-field actions. I'm one of the few who thinks they're actually on the right track on the field. Still, they're not far enough along to counteract the economic downturn & limp marketing. I think attendance drops precipitously, a few message board apologists not withstanding.

Posted by: MoMonroe | March 9, 2009 4:04 PM | Report abuse

i look forward to cheaper seats in a less crowded park when i go to see a real team, like the mets, come and visit nationals park. the nats are awful. lerner is awful. the stadium is a $700m waste of taxpayer money. hey good job, DC. what a city!

Posted by: kendynamo | March 9, 2009 4:05 PM | Report abuse

MoMonroe, when's your birthday? Cuz I want to give you a gift, so that every year I can collect millions of dollars of rent on it from you. And every time you use it, you have to pay me a tax on every dollar you take in. Okay? Still want my "gift"?

Posted by: nunof1 | March 9, 2009 4:09 PM | Report abuse

nunof1 - are you implying that the stadium built for the lerners was somehow a bad deal for them? then why'd they make it? they were free to privately acquire land anywhere they wanted in the DC area, then build the stadium themselves and keep all the profit, therefore avoiding the onnerous terms of this gift. yet they choose to take DC stadium, leasee agreement, tax fees and all. wow, what generous guys. next thing you know, they'll actually PAY the rent they agreed to.

Posted by: kendynamo | March 9, 2009 4:19 PM | Report abuse


I think it's worth noting that the city didn't give the Lerner's the stadium, they paid $450 million to MLB for the team with the rights to play at that stadium. Your beef is with MLB, they are the scam artists that got to keep the profit in that transaction.

But I agree with your other point, the Nats need better Marketing.

Posted by: psubman | March 9, 2009 4:25 PM | Report abuse

i think semantics aside, everyone needs to realize that the city built a $700m stadium (when all costs are tallied it is likely more than that) that MLB/the lerner family should have and could have built and paid for themselves. my beef is with both mlb/lerners, for being so cheap after getting this gift, and for the city of DC, for being so stupid as to agree to this deal, and to the people of DC for defending the city's stupid DC. actually, i dont have a beef with any of them, i dont care really, i am just pointing out the greed and stupidity where i see it.

Posted by: kendynamo | March 9, 2009 4:32 PM | Report abuse

On the marketing front, I thought it was a step in the right direction that there was a piece on Nats mini-plans in one of the direct mail coupon packets that we receive regularly. I recall seeing pieces from the Caps in such packets previously, but not for the Nats.

Posted by: natsfan1a1 | March 9, 2009 4:39 PM | Report abuse

born and raised in Baltimore and transplanted to DC at the tender age of 10, i grew up deeply loving the O's and acquired a patient affection for the old Nats. that ended with the 1) Bob Short's hijacking of the DC franchise, 2) the spring training lockout in '90, and 3) Angelos' stewardship of the O's.

my young daughter loved going to baseball games, and i was "almost" lulled back into the fold by spending time with her at a few games. thankfully (i suppose), i had to relocate to the west coast.

now my jaundiced eye is firmly back in place. MLB needs to collapse in its entirety. maybe, a new, chastened league can be built from the ashes.

Posted by: mdrockjock | March 9, 2009 4:41 PM | Report abuse

Was wondering how long it was going to take the WAPO to plant the old attendence diatribe. Well here it is and right on que all of the usual suspects chime in with the tired old lame "told ya so" lines.

Lets take a step back for a moment and clear away the haze. First off, both the Mets and Yankees are having trouble selling seats at the new stadiums that have eclipsed even the $611M spent here. Why? Not because of some great shift away from Baseball, no its simply because the price of even the cheapest seats are off the charts and some folks have finally said enough. Has the economic disaster been more acute in NYC, probably!

Here is the biggest difference between baseball and all of the other sports, 81 games. It takes a ton of marketing and a decent product to fill up your 45K+ seats for 81 dates. There is no comparison in any other sport. NFL Teams play 8 home games once a week over a 4 month span, NHL and NBA teams play 41 home games in venues that are half the size of an average baseball stadium.

Bottom line is $ for $ baseball in DC is a rather cheap ticket if you compare it against the other three teams. Now with the several new ticket plans, its still worth the effort. I'm in year 5 of my 41 game plan and I can't say enough about my ticket manager, everytime I have called to change locations (from RFK days to just this past January) I have been accomodated.

Posted by: TippyCanoe | March 9, 2009 4:41 PM | Report abuse

don't plan to go to Nats is AAA quality and there is nothing to the experience that intrigues me enough to justify the overpriced food and others....the premium pricing plan is just another attempt to rip off the customer, and I don't wish to be there.

Posted by: outrbnksm | March 9, 2009 5:09 PM | Report abuse

I don't think the attendance figures for the Rockies are going to drop significantly. I moved out here last year and went to a couple games; most of the upper deck seats were empty. The team is not very good, they don't play any teams I'd pay money to see. I'll go to a few games, but won't waste my money on a mediocre team. Having said that, no one was going to the games last year, so I don't think there'll be that much of a drop off.

Posted by: hacksaw | March 9, 2009 5:16 PM | Report abuse

We maintained our 4 seats, full season, section 208 group. There were some drop outs, but we filled all but 3 games internally and brought in one extra person. We also took 3 Boston games (to my good fortune).

We finally dropped our Os Sunday package. Had been full season seats holders from 1992 - 2004, then 13 Sundays for 4 years therafter. Fortunately for the Nats, access has turned out not to be a hassle. They'll get hit, but not disproportionately.

By the way, Baseball Prospectus has 6 Nats in the top 10 VORP for their positions this year - Johnson (1b), Guzman (2b), FotF 1.0 (3b), Dunn - Milledge - Dukes (Lf-CF-RF). This should be a line up that hits.

Posted by: jca-CrystalCity | March 9, 2009 5:57 PM | Report abuse

I have renewed my 20 game season ticket plan for a 3rd year. I can't know for sure why, but I was able to move 4 sections closer to first base in the upper mezzanine...sec 229 to 223. I love going to games. So, if anyone dropped their tickets (like, say, Tom Boswell) so I could get better seats...Thanks! I have a feeling that in a year or two when the team developes into a great competitive franchise (it took the Mets, what, 7 years?) I will be so happy I hung around the tough years to enjoy them. Now, if they'd just let Teddy win a race!

Posted by: lostein | March 9, 2009 6:59 PM | Report abuse

As the economic down turn will keep some people away it wont keep me away this season. I renewed "actually got an upgrade" my two season tickets and can't wait for opening day. I will attend another 70 or so games this season.

What I wont be doing is making a long road trip this season to catch the Nats on the road, except when they play the O's at Camden Yards.

Posted by: mhornbaker | March 9, 2009 9:10 PM | Report abuse

In addition to the recession, I think the parking situation really hurt them last year. They won't start to sell out regularly until there is good parking close to the ballpark. The RFK shuttle is nice, but a $12 even $15 parking lot within walking distance would do more to bring people to the games than anything else. A lot of people go to one game a year, decide it's a hassle, and never go back.

I was a full-season-ticket holder in 05 and 06 but did not renew in 07 or 08. I wanted to, but I had trouble getting to the games and leaving work early to go to a baseball game got to be a bit uncomfortable. I was definitely disappointed in the quality of play, but that was not the reason I didn't renew.

The main reason was I couldn't give the tickets away. People would get so freaked out over parking and how to get there that even if you gave them a ticket, they'd just give up. A lot of people aren't spontaneous and they get intimidated by things like that.

Make it easier, the people will come.

I know they were going to make improvements, so I'll be curious how they work out. If they can make it as accessible as Camden Yards from a parking perspective, it will draw. Having metro helps, but Metro also adds a half-hour in and out and that drives away many of the repeat fans.

Posted by: anubis_lab | March 10, 2009 5:34 AM | Report abuse

I have been a full ST holder since the beginning and regularly go to 20-25 games a year, selling the rest to friends. I will continue to go to as many games and this year, I actually got 2 new people to buy tickets from me. Now I have 2 people buying 20 games and 1 buying 10.

Parking is available just west of the bridge on South Capitol. Going south on S. Capitol, make a right on PPotomac Ave (just before the bridge) and turn left on 1/2 St and make the first left. The parking is $15 right next to the bridge. You cross S. Capitol and you are at the Home Plate entrance. A great deal and it is PUBLIC parking, pay as you go!

I am glad the Nats finally added mini plans, but I wish they would tell someone other than the most avid fan about it.

I hope Rizzo is able to trade away some of the assets so we can gain some prospects or relief pitching so that we can be more competitive this year. I think the offense will have improved this year.

Go Nats! I am very glad that baseball is back!

Posted by: NatsWin | March 10, 2009 9:09 AM | Report abuse

"nunof1 - are you implying that the stadium built for the lerners was somehow a bad deal for them? then why'd they make it? they were free to privately acquire land anywhere they wanted in the DC area, then build the stadium themselves and keep all the profit, therefore avoiding the onnerous terms of this gift."

There's a big difference between a good deal and an outright gift. Sure, the Lerners got a good deal on the stadium, but I would not characterize it as a gift in any sense of that term.

"next thing you know, they'll actually PAY the rent they agreed to."

Actually, they did pay the rent. About six months ago, after the city agreed to complete the parts of the stadium that they had been dragging their feet on. Stuff that the city would probably still not be doing had the Lerners not withheld the rent in order to force their hand. Mission accomplished for the Lerners. Now you need to wake up and find a new argument, because your old one is toast.

Posted by: nunof1 | March 10, 2009 9:51 AM | Report abuse

"i dont care really, i am just pointing out the greed and stupidity where i see it.

Posted by: kendynamo | March 9, 2009 4:32 PM "

Do you see your own stupidity, or do you need me to point it out for you?

Posted by: nunof1 | March 10, 2009 9:59 AM | Report abuse

NatsWin, thanks for the parking tip. As noted above, we recently received a direct mail coupon packet that included a piece on Nats mini plans. Such packets do not target the Nats fan base but rather the general public.


I am glad the Nats finally added mini plans, but I wish they would tell someone other than the most avid fan about it.

Posted by: natsfan1a1 | March 10, 2009 10:00 AM | Report abuse

I didn't just renew my season ticket plan, I upgraded! Go Nats!

Posted by: frog7694 | March 10, 2009 10:45 AM | Report abuse

Lerner was "given" a ballpark?

No, he paid $450 million to get the team and the lease.

Posted by: EnoughISEnough | March 10, 2009 5:26 PM | Report abuse

Tippy Canoe, best post on this thread. You should've written the article, not that assclown the Post used.

Posted by: EnoughISEnough | March 10, 2009 5:29 PM | Report abuse

TippyCanoe --- easy on that haze clearing. The Mets, like the Nats, are holding a pair of college games before the big leaguers come in as a dry run for stadium staff. Both games sold out. Then the Red Sox come in for a pair of exhibitions... those sold out in 45 minutes! Citi Field is having no trouble selling seats because the on-field product is pretty darn good. Our Nats WILL get there... forget about the Lerners -- trust Kasten.

And NatsWin -- way to go telling the world about our awesome and heretofore little-known parking spot. Big mouth!

Posted by: outsider6 | March 11, 2009 12:19 AM | Report abuse

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