Binary Man: Buy Nats Tix Or Hold Back?
Binary Man has come to our planet to settle disputes, solve problems and make life a whole lot better. Each week, he will confront an issue, weigh the arguments and present a verdict. Got an issue for him? Post it below or e-mail him.
From the moment major league baseball returned to Washington, buying Nationals tickets was presented as an investment in the future, an act of faith and trust that the team would in reasonably short order become a top-tier franchise, a genuine contender that would rebuild the sport's fan base in the nation's capital.
Now, with the Nationals heading toward their fifth season in town (and the always-dicey sophomore session at the new ballpark), and with all of professional sports starting to retrench as recession-plagued fans watch their dollars, the team and its fans are warily circling each other with one big question between them: Should fans keep pumping the bucks into the product when said product continues to be, um, awful?
Binary Man himself has been asking this question in its purest form: Renew his share in a season ticketholders group, or not? This is a matter of both psychic affiliation and bottom-line brass tacks.
A fan has only one way to exercise leverage--with the dollar. Some diehard Nats fans are deciding that the Lerners, the team owners who have promised since they first acquired the franchise that they will spend what it takes to put a serious contender on the field, are not holding up their end of the bargain.
"If they don't sign an impact player, good luck trying to woo your fans back with more promise of prospects, plans, progress and pathetic play," writes blogger Jeff Bergin on NationalsPride.com, one of the team's many fan sites where the faithful are getting restless.
"Expect a turn to Plan 08, as in same plan as last year," writes a gloomy Harper Gordek on the Oleanders and Morning Glories blog. "Bargain basement free agents, a trade for a middling prospect perhaps, some prayers. It's not terrible for the Nats. They are on a slow methodical pace toward competitive baseball and can only be better next year, but it's going to be another disappointing season fan-wise."
The Post's own Baseball Immortal, Tom Boswell, announced the other day that he is cancelling his season tickets. That by itself should be occasion for the Red Alert to sound down on S. Capitol Street.
All around town, people who invested in ticket packages at RFK to celebrate the return of baseball, and then kept their tickets to get good seats at the new stadium, are now wondering whether to sink more money into a team that isn't shelling out the millions to compete in any serious way. The Lerners' dispute with the District government over paying rent on the ballpark hasn't exactly sent the message that the owners are doing what they are asking fans to do--demonstrate faith even when circumstances are difficult.
Binary Man appealed to Nats President Stan Kasten for answers to these grave doubts, and the boss was characteristically chipper: "People get trapped in that way of thinking about payroll. Do you want us to have the $100 million payroll that Seattle had last year [when the Mariners became the first team to spend $100 million and lose 100-plus games], or do you want us to have the $40 million payroll that Tampa had [as it won the American League championship]?"
Kasten argues that even now, the Nats are worth fans' investment because the game experience is great fun and the team, which "last year was the youngest and most-injured team in baseball, is now past all of our injuries, and our minor leagues are now going to be producing strong, exciting players."
But the Nats' chief executive knows that's not enough--and he says this off-season ain't over till it's over. "We've added some players already, and there are still more than 100 free agents out there. We're in conversations with many of them and we're hopeful that we're not finished. It remains a work in progress."
Some fans are waiting to see if the Nats land slugger Adam Dunn or second-baseman Orlando Hudson, but others gave up hope for a great leap forward after Mark Teixeira spurned the Nats to take his bat to the Bronx.
Kasten argues that the Lerners are "still committed to making this a first-class franchise, and we still have a ways to go." He says the owners played hardball with the city over the now-settled rent issue "to make sure the city's taxpayers got everything they paid for in the new stadium."
Binary Man likes the concept of the little guy making a statement to the powerful, and if withholding your dollars is your favored method for sending a message, he's ok with that. But Binary Man has a strong prejudice against cutting off your nose to spite your face (though he is also deeply, harshly opposed to using idioms that don't make a whole lot of sense).
Fans who buy into multiple-game packages are by definition people who enjoy watching the game. For them to now turn around and withhold their dollars to make a point about the management and direction of the franchise is a bit grandiose. With the incorrigibly untrustworthy class of characters who tend to own sports teams, it's generally best to take the high road, as in, "I was a fan of [your choice of allegiance, say, to the Washington Redskins, or the New York Yankees] long before [Dan Snyder, The Steinbrenners, etc.] came along, and I intend to outlast their [greed, avarice, incompetence, egotism]...."
The alternative is to quit pro sports entirely, which then propels you into a whirlwind of debate about the impurities and injustices involved in collegiate sports....
It's all enough to make Binary Man's head spin. So he has returned to center: Focus, weigh the arguments, and conclude. Fans have good options short of depriving themselves of some fun nights at the park. The Nats this month announced they are lowering prices on about 14,000 seats at the stadium. (Yes, they're holding tickets to the three games against the Boston Red Sox hostage, selling them only to fans who hold season packages, but that's the way the ticket game works these days.) If you want to make a statement about the team's direction, or just need to take the crumbling economy into account, by all means check out lower-priced seats. It is still possible to get decent seats for $10 each, a genuine bargain, even for a last-place team.
If enough people choose lower-priced tickets rather than plunking down for the fancier seats, the team owners will get the message.
But it's way too soon to pull the plug entirely on the Nats and the Lerners. The owners do need to make some moves to demonstrate their determination to give this region, the #9 market in the country, a franchise that matches the area's spending power. They need to be serious bidders--and winners--in some of the key free agent possibilities that are still out there.
But a sports team does not develop in a vacuum; Washington fans have a fickle enough reputation. Part of rebuilding support for a sport that missed three decades of this area's development is showing that you want it to stay here. Binary Man will buy some tickets--he will definitely downgrade, making less of an investment both to save money and to send that message about owner commitment, but he will buy some. Go Nats.
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