Build It and We Will Come
For years now the fans of D.C. have been whispering, “Build it and we will come,” in response to questions about attendance. In 2005, when the Nationals were the newest thing on the block, they drew 2.7 million. When Nationals Park opened in 2008 and there was another new toy, attendance went back up to 2.3 million despite a woeful team. As the team has fallen, attendance has as well.
Which has left the guys in the press box questioning why there are no local fans. But they got their answer this weekend. For the match-up between the Braves — perennial National League East contenders — and Nationals, the stadium was near capacity. And that is why one day in the not so distant future, Braves fans coming to Nationals Park will do the chop in lonely solemnity. They will be scattered around the park in fading Braves jerseys that will attest to what once was.
The Saturday crowd of 41,042 fans was there to see Stephen Strasburg. There was no chop, just nine flaming strikeouts from the Washington ace. Strasburg’s 99 mph fastball in the first inning gave the local crowd all they needed. Seven innings later, with Washington finally ahead by a single run, the enthusiastic crowd began the wave and the only chop in the house was on the buffet in the Diamond Club.
The free outdoor concert that followed Saturday’s game may have brought additional young people. The promotion was a tad more subdued than a Bill Veeck’s Disco Demolition Night, but it did the job. Still, there were 38,046 fans in attendance Sunday afternoon with no promotional gimmickry.
It is not hard to argue that there may always be a solid contingent of fans from out of town. Bob Wolff, the Hall of Fame play-by-play announcer who started in D.C., believes it is the nature of Washington’s workforce. He said in an interview a few weeks ago that even in the 1950s, out-of-town fans drawn largely from the transient federal work force frequently drowned out the cheers of Senators fans at Griffith Stadium as they rooted for the visiting team. But then there was not so much to cheer about for Senators fans.
The 2012 season is the first since 2005 to beg that question. Attendance at Nationals Park is on a pace to hit 2.3 million. There are signs that the crowds are just beginning to build. Washington is currently 17th in average attendance among all major league clubs with approximately 28,000 per game.
The Washington Post was quick to point to low turnout early in the season when fans were still caught up in the Capitals’ playoff run. But now the D.C. sports imagination has been completely caught up in the great pitching duo of Gio Gonzalez and Strasburg, and the Bryce Harper show, as well. Wolff’s out-of-towners may soon forget their roots and get caught up in this new D.C. dance craze called the Nationals.
There is something more important, however, than just civic pride at stake in creating a loyal fan base. It was articulated by Chicago White Sox general manager Ken Williams when he told the Chicago Sun-Times last week that low attendance at Comiskey Park this season — the White Sox rank 27th overall with average attendance of 20,662 — will undermine his ability to deal for experienced, high-salaried players at the trading deadline despite his team sitting atop the American League Central comfortably.
It is not just the attendance that has Williams singing the blues. Team payroll for the White Sox, including Adam Dunn’s $14 million, totals $97 million, 11th among the 30 major league teams. It is the ledger gap between money coming in – among the lowest in the majors – and the money going out – among the highest – that truly constrains Williams.
Although estimates vary, Washington payroll is still lower than that of the White Sox. USA Today puts the Nationals’ salaries at $81 million. The gap between that number and the increasing attendance at Nationals Park should provide Nats general manager Mike Rizzo with adequate flexibility if he needs that extra piece, like a Mike Gonzalez to provide experienced depth in the bullpen, for example.
For fans, it is not about the money, but a sense of civic and sports pride. There was reason to feel a bit of that as 80,000 fans watched the Braves and Nationals battle for NL East supremacy on one of the most beautiful weekends for baseball so far this year. And watching what may be the best young team in baseball, currently sitting atop the NL East, what’s not to like about that?