Large crowds for the Philadelphia and Baltimore series have given the Nationals the third largest increase in attendance compared to the same point in the 2011 season. Mandatory Credit: Brad Mills-US PRESSWIRE

Washington Nationals Attendance - Bad Baseball Town or Discerning Customers?

Even before baseball returned to the nation’s capital, fans in the D.C. area have heard countless critics chirp:

Baltimore Orioles’ owner Peter Angelos: “There are no baseball fans in Washington. That’s a fiction.”

Fans from other cities in 2005: “So what if they’re drawing more than 33,000 a game? They haven’t had a team for 30 years. They should sell out every game, but D.C.’s a town of transients, so no one roots for the home teams. Boy, baseball made a big mistake.”

In the wake of fewer than 23,000 fans showing up for Bryce Harper‘s mid-week home debut on May 1, The Washington Post concluded in a front page story, based on attendance at the first 12 home games of the season being below the average for the entire 2011 season, that the town was tepid in its support of “an exciting young team in first place in the National League East.” 

In a letter to the editor of the Post, Kenneth J. Wolfe of Alexandria, Virginia blamed the Nats’ supposedly disappointing attendance levels on the team’s failure to build a neoclassical Camden Yards-type ballpark. He wrote, “…a traditional ballpark is what draws a crowd, win or lose.” (emphasis mine).

As a counterpoint, both former Nationals’ president Stan Kasten and prominent ownership group member Mark Lerner have said countless times that Washington’s support for the team will track with its won-loss record. “We get the attendance we deserve,” said Kasten.

Others, like long-time D.C. baseball advocate Phil Wood and Post columnist emeritus Thomas Boswell contend that Washington requires a few consistent years of winning, including at least one playoff or World Series appearance for fans to become passionate about the Nationals. Boswell points out that few people alive today could even remember Washington’s last post-season appearance (the 1933 Series).

In a companion letter to Wolfe’s, Joseph L. Walker (no relation to the author) of Woodbridge, Virginia wrote, “people will not step up to buy a new version of a product that has been poor for the past seven years.” In other words, D.C. fans are discerning customers who will not part with their entertainment dollar to watch substandard fare.

So, who is right? Is D.C. just a bad baseball town or is it a town with great demographics for baseball — a well-educated, financially strong metropolis like St. Louis and Boston — simply waiting for a team worth their time, attention, and even affection?

Let’s look at the data — Major League Baseball attendance records from 2005-2011 — and see what we can discern.

Assertion #1: D.C. is a bad baseball town and MLB made a mistake moving the Expos here.

Since 2005, the highest the Nationals have been in attendance rankings (based on average fans per game) is 11th (2005). It’s worst performance was in 2007 (25th). Every year except two (2007 and 2011) the Nationals have finished higher in attendance rankings than in won-loss rankings. In no year have the Nationals won more than 81 games, the closest performances coming in their maiden season (2005, 81 wins) and last season, when a late surge left them one win shy of a .500 record.

So, based on the data, while it cannot be claimed that Washington, D.C. is a great baseball town neither can the city be called a bad town for the national pastime. If MLB made a mistake moving the Montreal franchise here, it has at least five and as many as nine or ten other cities even less deserving than Washington. Not surprisingly, all of these teams either have teams who have struggled to win for years (Kansas City, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Cleveland) or play(ed) in poor or old ballparks (Tampa Bay, Oakland, and Florida).

Assertion #2: Regardless of a team’s record, traditional ballparks draw more fans than more modern designs do.

This is the “<insert name of traditional ballpark such as Pittsburgh’s PNC Park>” will always draw better than “<insert name of modern ballpark such as Cincinnati’s Great American Ballpark>” because <traditional ballpark> is a better place to enjoy a game.

While PNC Park, Camden Yards, and the Cleveland Indians’ parks may be nicer places to watch baseball than the parks in Cincinnati, Shea Stadium, or Houston’s garish monstrosity, struggling teams simply attract fewer fans, no matter how nice or traditional their playgrounds.

Looking at the 2005-11 data, teams that draw the most fans are (a) winners and/or (b) from huge cities like New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. In 2010, the top five stadiums in drawing crowds were, in order, Yankee Stadium, Citizens Bank Park, Chavez Ravine, Busch Stadium, and the ballpark in Anaheim. The traditional ballparks in Cleveland (30th place or smallest crowds in baseball), Pittsburgh (27th) and Baltimore (24th) drew far fewer fans despite their traditional architecture.

The two truly “classic” parks, Wrigley (usually to see bad baseball teams) and Fenway (usually to see good ones) do indeed draw well, as does San Francisco’s gorgeous Pac Bell Park. However, these three teams also play in huge cities with much larger populations than most other MLB locales. While Nationals Park is not a “retro type”ballyard, it has received quite positive reviews from nearly every unbiased observer as a great place to watch the game, even if the architecture lacks stunning or iconic characteristics.

Assertion #3: The Nationals finally have a good team and the fans aren’t showing up.

After 48 games it seems this may be the year Nationals fans have a good club to enjoy. While attendance for the first dozen home games averaged slightly less than 24,000 per game, large crowds for the Philadelphia and Baltimore series may portend a town that will turn out in fairly impressive numbers for a winner.

To date, based on 23 home games, the Nationals are averaging 27,331 per game, an average increase of 7,558 fans  compared to the first 23 games of the 2011 season. Only two clubs, the Miami Marlins, playing in an iconic new stadium, and Detroit, winners of the Prince Fielder sweepstakes, have a larger average increases. The Texas Rangers, American League Champions two years running (+7,501) trail the Nats by only a few fans.

Based on about 30% of the team’s home games, it appears that Washington fans are, indeed, embracing their team, enjoying the Nats’ first place status and the chance to watch stars such as Gio Gonzalez, Ryan Zimmerman, Stephen Strasburg, and rookie phenom Bryce Harper.

Time will tell if the Nationals and their fans can sustain their winning ways for a full season. The early results, however, are quite promising.

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