For the Washington Nationals, the time is now.
I’m not talking about the Nats’ urgent need to win games in order to make this year’s playoffs. Because as I write this, the Nats are 48-48, wildly underachieving.
I’m talking about the Washington Nationals turning themselves into a top-tier, grade-A Major League Baseball franchise. A team like the Yankees, Cardinals, or Dodgers. Yes the Nationals can be that kind of team. The window of opportunity has flung open, but it won’t stay there forever.
On the field, the Nationals have the tools to compete for a World Series title from now until 2016. Washington’s top three starting pitchers, Strasburg, Gonzalez, and Zimmermann are locked up through 2016. Jayson Werth’s deal runs thru 2017, Bryce Harper is stuck until 2019, Zimmerman through 2019. Even secondary pieces like Ian Desmond and Ross Detwiler cannot seek free agent contracts until 2016, Drew Storen until 2017. Few, if any teams can speak with certainty about having this much talent for the next three to six years.
So what’s the problem? The Nats should be good for years to come. What’s not to like?
If the Washington Nationals ever want to turn the corner and have long-term success, Ted Lerner & co. would be wise to spend every dime they can, and do it fast.
This is only the 9th season of the newest edition of Washington baseball. Trying to start and expand a fanbase in a major sports league is no small task. Nine years is a sliver in the timeline of baseball history. Before 2012, attendance numbers were poor. There is no shame in that, being a new team with little promise on the field.
The Nationals were a modest 9th in the NL in attendance last year, and 8th so far this season. With shrinking payroll inequality over the past few years, middle of the pack in payroll and attendance is a solid place to be.
Maintaining the current level of excitement after let’s say, 2017, will be the real challenge. This challenge has two parts: the ballpark and demographics.
If you’re a Beltway native you may be surprised to find that Nationals Park does not fare well compared to other parks in the MLB. Despite being only 6 years old, the Capitol’s ballpark is very average. Most newer ballparks have done something to create an atmosphere that starts before your ticket is punched. That small, uninviting, fenced-in area for college students to play cornhole is nothing compared to other cities. Colorado and Baltimore moved to tight, vibrant neighborhoods with businesses in all directions. Philadelphia and Milwaukee boast huge parking lots for tailgaters. In Washington, the neighborhood around the park doesn’t even feel safe, never mind fun.
There is hardly anything for baseball fans to do before or after the game within sight of the ballyard. Having no other reason than a winning team to take a Metro down to Navy Yard may not serve the Nationals any good during lean years.
Creating a world-class experience, both inside and outside the park is critical to retain young fans. The growing population of 20 and 30 somethings might decide whether the Nationals franchise is exceptional or mediocre. Starting a new franchise in such a young city is a blessing for the Nationals. Sure, a large percentage of younger people in D.C. are not Beltway natives, but they are still impressionable. The Nationals aren’t trying to win the hearts of 50 year old men and women with children, mortgages, and 40 years of allegiance to the Orioles, Yankees, or someone else.
Washington, D.C. is one of the few major cities that has actually grown in the last 10 years. The franchise must take advantage of this trend and expand the fanbase with the city, not grow and shrink by coincidence.
The Nats also need to take advantage of their team’s potential success in the coming seasons by maximizing attendance as soon as possible. Structural improvements around Nationals Park, which are supposedly coming soon, will be very expensive. Arbitration-eligible players are also going to get expensive, and fast. Strasburg, Zimmermann, and Desmond can expect a healthy pay-raise this winter.
For now, the future looks bright for baseball in the District of Columbia. With a little TLC on the ballpark, and an effort to captivate the fastest growing population of young professionals in the nation, the franchise could be the best in the business.