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.
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