Phil Wood: Nationals fans proving D.C. is a baseball town after all

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According to Major League Baseball, the Washington Nationals sold 509,006 tickets during the month of April. They played 16 home games last month, for a per-game average of 31,813. That figure ranks them 10th overall out of 30 teams. You can do the math yourself, but here's the bottom line: At their current rate, they'll attract almost 2.6 million fans this year, just shy of what they drew in 2005, their inaugural season in the larger RFK Stadium.

In late September 2004, when the move from Montreal to the District was first announced, a number of nationally known baseball scribes -- names you'd recognize -- cried foul. Taking the team out of Montreal and putting it in a town that's already lost two teams is a mistake, they insisted. Some went so far as to say that it would be gone again in 5 years, maybe less, because Washington is simply not a baseball town. No one's really "from" Washington anyway, they said. It's all a bunch of out-of-towners.

From the start of the on-air portion of my career in 1978, I frequently addressed the lack of a major league team in Washington. My position was clear: Put a competitive team on the field in Washington and the fans will come. There has always been -- and will always be -- a direct correlation between winning and attendance. Why should Washington be any different?

I later read a column by Dave Kindred, the legendary sportswriter who spent a few years in Washington. The column was about something called "fans-per-victory," a formula used by sports marketers to determine what constituted a good sports town. It was pretty simple: If we accept the basic premise that good teams sell more tickets than bad teams, can the number of tickets sold by losers give us any indication how many they'd sell if they started to win? Based on that, Kindred concluded that, at least as far as baseball was concerned, the Senators actually had pretty solid support given the routinely poor quality of the product.

The expansion version of the Senators played 11 years in the District before moving to Texas, from 1961 to 1971, and had an average record of 67-95. Their win total bottomed out at 56 in 1963 and reached a peak of 86 in 1969. No postseason appearances or even a sniff of the first division. The same can be said for the last 10 years of the original franchise that moved to Minnesota, a team that had an average record of 65-89. The turning point of the season was usually the anthem on Opening Day, a line I've trotted out many times.

It's perfectly plain that nine years after the move, Washington is very much a baseball town. The Nats will likely never be first overall in attendance; they don't have as many seats to sell as some other teams do. It's interesting, though, that none of the early killjoys and critics have bothered to admit they had it wrong.

Which they very much did.

Examiner columnist Phil Wood co-hosts the "Mid-Atlantic Sports Report" and is a regular contributor to "Nats Xtra" on MASN. Contact him at philwood@washingtonexaminer.com.

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Phil Wood

Staff reporter - sports
The Washington Examiner