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They Built It And They Came By Metro

The crowds at Nationals Park over the course of its first season of operation didn't wow anyone; indeed, the Washington Nationals set a record for lowest attendance by a team playing in a new ballpark.

But the 29,000 fans who, on average, attended each of the 80 games this season filled about 70 percent of the seats and the good news, according to a Metro release today, is that an impressive 53 percent of those fans arrived at the ballpark by Metrorail. That's a big jump from the 38 percent of fans who took Metro to Nats games at RFK Stadium in the two previous years.

The heavy reliance on transit--not quite the numbers achieved by the Wizards and Capitals at the Abe Pollin Center--is a tribute to the PR campaign run by the Nats and the D.C. government, which did a fine job of spreading fear that those who drove in to the dead zone around Nationals Park would find themselves with nowhere to park. In truth, that turned out to be anything but the case, and by mid-season, many fans were discovering that parking around the stadium was plentiful and relatively cheap (especially if you cut a private deal with the parking lot attendants, who were thrilled to pocket the full fee.)

The numbers from Metro are a little funky: Metro claims that "1.8 million fans took Metrorail to and from Nationals games" this season. But that doesn't come close to squaring with the 53 percent figure in the same news release, because the Nats' total home attendance this year was 2.32 million, and my calculator says that 1.8 is not even close to 53 percent of 2.32.

Math skills aside, that widespread use of Metro is encouraging for those future seasons when, if the Nats owners are to be believed, the team will approach major-league quality and attendance will therefore improve. (No one expects that to happen as soon as next year, which means Year Two at the ballpark could be a rough one for attendance.) Urban planners who fought hard to get the stadium built adjacent to Metro and in the core of the city were of course right, and the national trend toward forsaking suburban locations and putting sports facilities in downtown areas is solidifying.

Five of the six baseball stadiums now under construction or being designed are to be built in urban locations; only the A's' new home in Fremont, Calif., will be erected alongside an Interstate highway far from any city center.

Especially now, as most professional sports leagues consider how they may deal with reduced attendance and revenue if the country drifts into an extended recession, the desire of fans to save a few bucks is likely to continue to drive franchises toward downtown settings, both to take advantage of transit and to squeeze local and state governments for stadium-building funds, the main selling point of which is the prospect of economic development around a new stadium.

The Metro statistics don't break down by jurisdiction, but anecdotal evidence and Nationals executives' first-year impressions are that it was Virginia fans who were most willing to get out of their cars and use Metro. That's true despite the fact that the Green Line, which serves Nats Park, doesn't go to Virginia, requiring those fans to change trains in the District. But most Maryland fans--the group the Nats have had the roughest time attracting--don't have a straight shot to the stadium either, as most of the fans come from Montgomery County rather than Prince George's, which is where the Green Line goes.

So are Virginians more willing to change trains, or is there some other factor that's inhibiting Maryland fans? One theory has it that Marylanders are still more likely to remain loyal to the Orioles (though that team this past season suffered its worst attendance since the opening of Camden Yards in 1992.) Another explanation is that Maryland commuters are more accustomed than Virginians to driving into the District and therefore are more loath to switch to the subway. Or perhaps there's just a higher proportion of baseball fans in Virginia--a theory long espoused by the boosters who campaigned for the franchise to be granted to northern Virginia rather than the District.

It's probably too soon to draw any conclusions about the shape and size of the region's baseball fan base, but it would be foolish for the Lerner family to try to skate through 2009 without a serious and expensive effort to improve the quality of the team, provide a more balanced schedule (with more day games, which have always done very well in Washington and were largely missing from the first year's schedule), and repair their relationship with the District--a bit of politics that could go a long way toward making fans feel that they aren't the only ones shelling out the big bucks.

By Marc Fisher |  October 14, 2008; 3:38 PM ET
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Comments

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Have you ever considered that one of the reasons why they set the record for lowest attendance in a new park (post Camden - which you left out of your statement), is precisely because the Nats put the fear of God in anyone attempting to drive to the park? My kids and I took metro on my 30+ trips to the Navy Yard this year but I know several co-workers and friends a little west of the beltway who expressed concern about trying to steer their kids through the stations during rush hour. 10-15 minute waits at L'Enfant for the next orange line train on a school night doesn't help matters too much either.

Posted by: Arlington, VA | October 14, 2008 4:01 PM

Could the 53% number also include Metrobus? The release clearly states "Metrorail" with the 1.8 million trips (or 900,000 round trips). On average, 11,500 riders per game times 80 games is 920,000. So those numbers match up.

11,500 round trips corresponds to 39% of the 29,000 average attendance. To make up the difference, 14% or 4,000 people would have to take the bus. This is not an unrealistic number for an event of this size.

Posted by: Candyman | October 14, 2008 4:14 PM

Marc-

I'm a big fan of yours and I hate to be this guy, but you need to correct the spelling of our hockey team's name.

It's CapitAls, not CapitOls.

Thanks.

Posted by: Matt C | October 14, 2008 4:32 PM

Also, Camden Yards opened in 1992.

Posted by: Matt C | October 14, 2008 4:53 PM

Absolutely right, of course. Correction made. And thank you--I'd blame errant fingers, but you wouldn't believe me, and you shouldn't.

Posted by: Fisher | October 14, 2008 4:54 PM

No worries. Your blog post from a few weeks back about how most of your posts aren't copy edited (is that the right term?) because of both budget cuts and the nature of blogging was enlightening. Hopefully, some of your readers cut you a little bit of slack, but I doubt that's the case. Keep up the good work!

Posted by: Matt C | October 14, 2008 5:05 PM

Marc, It is now 4/5 urban parks being contructed or designed because the soon to be AL champion Rays have scrapped their plans for a waterfront park in St. Pete because of overwhelmingly negative PR.

Posted by: Smirkman | October 15, 2008 7:34 AM

Attendance is the number of tickets sold, not the actual number of fannies in seats.

Posted by: Smirkman | October 15, 2008 7:39 AM

Yes, I would also add that attendance numbers released by teams mirror the number of tickets sold, almost always higher than the number of souls who actually travel to attend the game.

Average tickets sold = 29,000 but...

as a season ticket holder I can tell you that the average number of bodies in the stadium was probably somewhere between 23,000-26,000.

Posted by: Tim | October 15, 2008 9:45 AM

I had read that the stadium was losing money like crazy. Can somebody tell me who is right?

Posted by: David | October 15, 2008 10:05 AM

No true Marylander will sell out the Orioles by going to a "Nat's" game; the Orioles are OUR true local team. Now the Redskins is a different matter...

btw Marylanders are far more likely to take the Metro than Virginians, and have a higher percentage of commuters that take Metro (and MD state contributes much more to the system than VA does).

Posted by: testudo | October 15, 2008 12:22 PM

Since when does Virginia have a higher proportion of baseball fans. Virginia, being a Southern state has only two sports that residents actually care about--football and NASCAR.

The reason Maryland baseball fans don't attend the games is because they aren't sellouts. Camden Yards, like other Northern stadiums such as Fenway, has much more character than the Nat's field, and is also located "in the city," but not in the middle of the ghetto like National's Park is.

Posted by: Anonymous | October 15, 2008 12:29 PM

It is very easy for Virginia fans to drive to the Anacostia metro station, park there, and walk to the game if the weather is nice. If the weather is not nice, they can ride the train one stop.

Switching trains fron yellow to green is also not difficult since they are on the same track.

Posted by: Andrew P | October 15, 2008 3:55 PM

No true Marylander will sell out the Orioles by going to a "Nat's" game; the Orioles are OUR true local team. Now the Redskins is a different matter...

Posted by: testudo | October 15, 2008 12:22 PM
--------
I'm a "true Marylander" and I do not consider the Orioles to be my "true local team." I have to drive an hour to go see them. That's not local.

I was hoping you'd make the point that as Marylanders, we [still!] pay for Camden Yards...and for the Ravens' stadium... and for Redskins stadium....

Posted by: Silver Spring | October 15, 2008 4:51 PM

Md only has two counties that should be attracted to the Nats so NoVa should have a lot more fans. As for attendance, the fools at MLB should be looking in the mirror realizing how foolish they were making this area wait so long for a team. Balt/Wash has drawn a total of over 4.5 million fans since the Nats came here. A giant leap above the average attendance for many franchises they have including some penant winners. Lets hope the team does improve in the next couple years so they see what real baseball fans we are in DC. This is not the Cubs with over 100 years tradition, give us a chance.
PS - Be nice to see some financial numbers on how much they really made this year and can spend on players

Posted by: RayNRockville | October 16, 2008 10:27 AM

Washington is the Nation's Capital, Baltimore is just a city in Maryland. If the Orioles are Maryland's team, the Nationals are America's team.

Posted by: Smirkman | October 16, 2008 2:09 PM

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