In what should be one of the highlights of their season and their attendance numbers in their final year at RFK stadium the Washington Nationals are having difficulties selling tickets for their match-up against nearby rivals the Baltimore Orioles.
Now the series against the Orioles is just one example of depressed attendance at RFK, but it is one that I think very obviously points out where some of the attendance problems are coming from.
First, the team is bereft of stars. They lost their one legitimate superstar in the off-season when Alfonso Soriano took the money and ran off to the Cubs. They had offered a fairly sizable contract to Soriano but refused to call Soriano's (and his agent's) bluff and agree to a no-trade clause. They also didn't try to offer enough in additional salary to convince Soriano that would be an acceptable alternative to the desired no-trade clause. Either way, they lost their only true star. A slugging outfielder that could be counted on to generate excitement with every at bat.
Yes, the team still has their young, up-and-coming, 3rd baseman Ryan Zimmerman. And yes he has the makings of a future star. But he's not consistent and can't be counted on to knock the ball out of the park the way that Soriano showed himself capable of. The fans just don't have that feeling of a potential home run when the Z-man steps up to the plate.
I argued with my son last nite as we rode home from the game disappointed that the O's had gotten a win in 'our house' that the Nationals screwed up big time by not keeping Soriano. My son thought that Soriano was too expensive to keep, and the Nationals couldn't justify that added cost. I say that is just plain wrong. The absence of Soriano is probably almost directly related to 5,000 - 8,000 fans per night that aren't showing up at RFK. At an average of $15.00 per ticket, the numbers add up plenty fast to show that Soriano would have been earning that extra money. Between $75,000 and $120,000 per game just in ticket revenue. Never mind concessions money for the extra food, beer, and soda sold at the stadium. If we go with the 5,000 fans per game number the numbers are just over $6,000,000 in lost ticket sales over the 81 home games in the season. Just over $9,000,000 if the number was closer to 8,000 fans per game.
Now, some could argue that the owners of the team saved that much and much more by not paying Soriano the $17 million that he was demanding per year (or more). True. The team did save that much I guess, but they also have lost a lot of revenue from ticket sales, fan memorabilia, souvenirs, concessions at the stadium and more. The team claims to have a plan. God, I hope they have a plan.
They claim to have a plan to get a young team together and be building a winner by revamping their organization from top to bottom. I do realize they desperately needed to do that. They needed to revamp their farm system, and restock it as well. They were so badly run by MLB while searching for owners that they had virtually no talent in their organization. They've had to over haul their scouting system. They've basically started as if they were an expansion team.
But they started last year with a big advantage they don't have this season. They had a star. They had a player that made the stands come alive with each at bat.
This year there's rarely even a dull whisper when the team sends up another hitter for his at bat. The fans recognize that their team is made up of pretenders and not contenders.
Which brings me back to the other reason I say that naked greed is depressing ticket sales. Because it really is. For example, last season that Nationals instituted a premium game pricing structure that let them charge extra for games they designated as premium games. The games against their rivals up I-95 included, and the games against the Cubs and others that are known to be hot draws of other teams fans.
Those premium tickets add $5.00 per ticket to the ticket price. Not a lot of money, but then again... when you consider that many of the empty seats are seats that should normally cost $10, or even a lowly $7 per, you've added over 50% to the cost of the seats for someone considering going to the game. If you are thinking of taking a family of four to the game, you're looking at $20 just in ticket premiums *over the regular cost of the ticket*. Given a choice of taking your family to go see Spiderman 3 or Shrek the Third in a nice air-conditioned theatre or sitting in the weather (which hasn't been that great in the early part of the season) and watching a game with a bunch of no-name players, which do you think people will choose?
If the Nationals had been smarter with those premium ticket prices and charged something more like $2.00 per ticket for the cheaper seats, and $5.00 more per ticket for the more expensive seats, they may have hit the right balance of higher prices for games that are more in demand rather than just looking like the team is run by a bunch of money-grubbers.
I'm sure that next season, the team's first in their own new stadium, will potentially be a big improvement. The team has talked of adding a considerable amount to their payroll (which gee, would already be done to some extent if they had opened their wallets a bit more to pay Soriano, but oh well...) which should improve the talent level. The stadium will be brand new, and not the old and obviously aged RFK. Yeah, it'll be better next year....