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The arguments for and against a taxpayer-financed baseball stadium in the District bear something of a resemblance to the ongoing debate about a Wall Street bailout. Back in 2004, populists protested that the park would be a giveaway to the fat cats in Major League Baseball, and their antagonists countered with the notion that the park would buoy the long-depressed economy of Southeast.
And then the pro-parkers went all sentimental on us. Here’s the call from two of the Washington Post’s most famous columnists:
Marc Fisher: “What [opponents] miss is what baseball can do for the region and the District, both as an intangible boost to our communal spirits and as a bottom-line lift to the city’s coffers.”
Thomas Boswell: “Baseball insinuates itself into every night of spring and summer, as well as the best days of fall. Then it returns to help us endure the end of winter as we wait for Opening Day. Even when the game is gone, it isn’t.”
Time for a correction, Mr. Boswell. The game is now gone from Nationals Park, as of last Wednesday, when the host Nationals lost to the Florida Marlins, 4-9. And it feels gone, to the extent it ever felt much here.
Now that the team has officially chalked up 102 losses and the worst new-stadium attendance since the ’82 Minnesota Twins inaugurated the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome, definitive answers about that 2004 civic rumble are pouring in. Yes, we did fork over our money to fat cats—a stingy and petty family of fat cats at that, one that won’t pay rent on the ballpark that it received for free. Yes, the stadium did foment economic development, notably in the form of a new Five Guys outlet.
But no, it did nothing for our communal spirits, our civic pride, or however you wish to couch those inestimable intangible benefits. The whole experiment failed to insinuate itself into every night of spring and summer. In D.C., only the humidity can pull off that sort of stunt.
Proof of the failure of Nationals Park to unite us all lies in the ticket. The Nationals’ ticket is a nice-looking specimen, rectangular with a drawing of an idyllic Nationals Park at the top. But that’s where its allure ends. In cities where the ball club is a source of civic pride, you wave your tickets around, and people come running. Got extras? How much are you asking?
Here, you wave your tickets around, and people come up with excuses. Sorry, gotta work late.
Nats tickets can be had for $5 a pop at the gate, so it’s hard to depress the market much further. In the 2008 season, however, that’s precisely what happened, as season ticket holders in many cases struggled just to offload the seats on someone who would make use of them. If the national economy ever suffered such a blow, everyone would be talking about a bailout package. But hey, we already gave the Nats a nearly $700 million stadium.
Land of the Free
Nats ticketholders find that sharing is hard to do.
Sure, it’s fun to visit a new stadium with fab sightlines and sit around drinking beer and eating peanuts. But it’s a drag to wait in line and pay outrageous sums for those concessions while watching the team lose. There are lots of games, so why drop what you’re doing to attend on a whim?
Something like the foregoing must have been on the minds of a young couple last spring as they walked near 7th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue SE, where they were accosted by Connie Mauro. She had a pair of tickets to a game starting in half an hour. The new ballpark had recently opened, and Mauro’s company had season tickets for padded club-level seats near a private bar.
“Don’t you guys want to go to the Nats game?” Mauro said. The young couple looked at each other.
“It’s kinda late. We have to go home,” they said. But Mauro would have none of it. She’d already been through this routine with a few other groups of people. She almost found takers a few minutes before when, hollering to different a group from her car, a young man was eager to go but the rest of the people shot him down.
“Just take these tickets and if you decide to go, go,” Mauro said to the young couple. She handed them the tickets. “I don’t know if they went or not, but that was the last time I tried to get rid of tickets on Capitol Hill.”
To be fair to the Nats, Mauro said she had the same difficulty when her employer had Orioles tix. But then again, the Nats play right here, not a two-hour ride in rush hour up I-95.
Fellow Capitol Hill resident Jim Morton figured out a better method: Before a home stand, he’ll send an e-mail to a list of about a half-dozen friends who he knows are generally interested in games (Morton himself attends roughly 30 games per season). He has an easier time getting takers when big-time teams like the Phillies or the Mets are visiting.
“I’m left with a few games that nobody goes to,” he says, estimating that he winds up with 30 unused pairs of tickets. He figures if he advertised them on the Web to the general public, he’d have no problem at all. “And of course if the Nationals had a better team, it’d be easier,” he says.
Mark Menard, co-owner of the 18th Amendment bar on Pennsylvania Avenue SE, bought season tickets partly so he could give them away to his best customers. When the stadium opened, he had lots of eager takers. But as the season wore on, he says, it got harder and harder to hand off the tickets.
“I could not unload to my bar customers who lived literally 10 blocks from the stadium,” he says. “Since June, it was painful trying to get rid of them.”
Menard says it was easier to share his tickets during the Nationals first season at RFK—that people would actually hound him for them. But even though he says everyone he knows loves the new stadium, the miserable performance of the team keeps folks away. He says tickets to about 50 games went unused.
Ned Kraemer, who tends bar two blocks to the west at the Tune Inn, faced a similar frustration. Often, he says customers would simply leave envelopes with unwanted tickets after settling their tabs. They would ask Kraemer to find somebody to use them. About 10 times during the season, he says, he couldn’t get a taker. Kraemer sums up the general response to the prospect of a free ballgame like this: “Eh.”
“We’re close enough” to the stadium, Kraemer says. “It’s not like it would be hard to get down there.”
Sarah Mitchell and her husband, Alexis, bought season tickets for four lower-deck seats knowing that many games would go unattended. For the Mitchells, who live in upper Northwest, the waste of unused tickets was worth the convenience of being able to see the most interesting matchups.
“We wanted the flexibility to go to the games we wanted,” Sarah Mitchell says. She says they shared the tickets with her in-laws and had success selling unwanted ones online via StubHub. It was no big deal to the Mitchells that about 20 percent of their stubs stayed home. “We knew what we were getting into,” says Sarah.
How hard is it to score free tix for one of baseball’s worst teams?
Boston is a bad place to look for free baseball tickets. The Red Sox, after all, are the defending World Series champs, and Fenway Park has been selling out at more than 100 percent capacity this season, thanks to its standing-room tickets.
Washington, on the other hand, would seem to be a good place to look for free tickets. The Nats ended the season with the league’s worst record. The stadium has 41,888 seats and, on average, only 29,500 of those seats are sold. And of those, many aren’t used.
So I set out to test the market for Nats freebies. Surely they’re not hard to come by.
I started where everyone starts. But Craigslist yielded nothing but blind failure.
The Nats’ PR people were no more forthcoming, despite lots of e-mails and calls to ask, over and over, how free tickets are given away and in what numbers. Perhaps the franchise would offer me some free tickets in exchange for a halt to my queries. Chartese Burnette, the team’s vice president for communications, told me that while 60,000-odd Nats tickets are given out each year, they are given out to nonprofit organizations that serve underserved youth, families, and military, and not so much to broke freelance writers on stunt assignments.
At an Aug. 30 home game, my friend Kim and I go to the ballpark to further the quest. No one suggests we look like the sorts of girls who could use some free tickets; no one says much of anything except for the small throng of (mostly) red-shirted scalpers who keep approaching people asking if they have spare tickets they’d like to sell or if they’d like to buy.
If we make eye contact with enough people, I suggest, someone will see into our needy souls and decide we deserve their spare tickets. Instead, eye contact leads to a blond protester zeroing in on me and Kim as people who are likely to sign a petition demanding that Nats stadium—the nation’s first certifiably green stadium—not be renamed “Exxonmobil Park.”
We are people who are likely to sign the petition, of course, and we do. We are outraged at the thought of an oil company naming our town’s green stadium! Then I ask the protester if she has a spare ticket.
“No,” she says; baseball’s not really her thing.
“Mine either,” I say.
Kim and I peer through the stadium gates at the big LCD display that has a large groovy flower and text that reads: “70s Night.” The small river of Nats fans—families, people on dates, groups of friends—are mostly dressed as if they expect to be called onto the field in order to play an inning themselves, in Nats T-shirts and sneakers and caps.
We approach one scalper—he tells us his name is John—who is standing between the Metro station exit and the stadium gates. He tells us he buys and sells 50 or 60 tickets a day. Most of the tickets he sells are bought off of people coming to the games who have spares; he buys them for less than their face value then sells them for more than he paid; it’s the rare day he doesn’t come out ahead.
“I make a profit,” he says.
But he also has a heart; John says that when people claim to be starving college students—and they all claim to be starving college students—he’ll sell them tickets for $10. “Got to be a little kid to get them for free,” he says.
Another of the scalpers gets a call on his cell phone and says to the person who called, “Hey, I’m just at work, call me back at 8:45,” then hangs up and starts to call out, “Anyone need tickets? Cheaper than the box office.”
At 8 p.m., an hour into the game, there are five or six scalpers near the Metro station exit. People still trickle from the station to the stadium. The scalpers are still on duty, asking the stragglers if they have extra tickets and if they need extra tickets, working with one another to pool tickets and yelling at each other about some sort of a bootleg movie deal gone wrong.
Nats tickets, they say, don’t sell a lot better or a lot worse than any other teams’ tickets—except for the teams that are doing well. “The only thing that determines the availability of tickets is if the team wins,” says one of the scalpers. This comports with the Red Sox experience as well—before the team got good, there were frequently up to 10,000 unsold tickets for Fenway games.
And they say they do give away free tickets—to kids, homeless people, families, their kids’ schools. But not to us. And possibly not to any of those other people, either. Despite all the talk about freebies, we witness nothing of the kind.
At 8:10 p.m., the fourth inning, there are still some people in line at the box office buying $5 tickets. The scalpers are getting ready to go home and the Exxonmobil protester has left as well. At the ticket booth, the guy behind the counter says there are probably 10,000 to 15,000 tickets left for that night’s game, but he never gives them away.
“Sorry,” he says.
The next day, back on Craigslist, I see I missed by one day the answer to my problems:
Nats vs. Phillies (9/1)-Female Companion Sought (Nationals Stadium)
Reply to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Date: 2008-08-31, 7:57PM EDT
I am seeking a female companion to accompany me to the Nat’s vs. Phillies game tomorrow afternoon. Game starts at 3:05pm and I will arrive 2:00pm. Drinks, food and tickets are my treat. Seats are field level; Section 111, Row AA…If “you” prefer for drinks and dinner afterwards then I’ll let that be your call…
I am 45, 5’9″, 180lbs, mixed race (wht & blk), fit, well groomed, professional and respectful.
If interested please respond tonight to confirm…
The Conscientious Objector
Man stays away from ballpark not because of shitty baseball played there but because of eminent domain.
Pete Eyre has a shaved head and six tattoos, including two tattooed quotes: one from Thomas Jefferson—“The price of freedom is eternal vigilance”—on his stomach and one from Barry Goldwater—“Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice”—on his left forearm. Eyre open-carries a gun when he’s in Virginia and in other states where open carries are legal. He tells people he’s carrying the gun because he believes that if you do not exercise your personal rights, then you lose them. “They are usurped by the government,” he says.
Eyre is sometimes subject to police interrogations and nasty/scared looks, but he is a principled person and endures these things in the name of liberty.
Another thing he endures in the name of liberty: abstinence from Nats games. Eyre works as the activist arm of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a libertarian think tank. (Disclosure: I have worked for CEI.) He doesn’t believe the government should have used $670-odd million of public money—money stolen from individuals, Eyre says—to build the stadium, not to mention the abuse of eminent domain to take the property the stadium is located on.
“In a truly free market, businesses would not have this advantage,” Eyre says. “This rent-seeking that’s going on with stadiums and other businesses such as defense contractors—it’s because of big government. People are against capitalism because they think it’s evil, but the only reason companies can seek government favor is because the government is so big.” If stadium and team owners thought baseball stadiums and teams would make money, Eyre says, they should have paid for the teams and stadiums themselves. Eyre is also, incidentally, opposed to the Nats for the same reason he’s opposed to sports in general: He doesn’t like the implications of teams dressing up in uniforms, representing particular geographic locations, and going at it while fans are whipped into some sort of nationalistic frenzy. “No matter where you’re born, you have the same rights,” Eyre explains.
So you won’t find this libertarian decked out in a red-and-white jersey, chomping on a Ben’s, and cheering the home team. Most like-minded folks, says Eyre, would agree with his principled opposition to seeing the Nats. Unfortunately, not all of Eyre’s friends are libertarians. “Seems like as soon as I made this decision,” he says. “People came out and said, ‘Oh, I have this extra ticket. Want to go?’”
Not for Resale
Nationals season-ticket holder chafes at life with StubHub
Scott Choate has a pretty good setup at Nationals Park. He’s got seats in front of and below the Red Loft, a long bar where fans gather to drink and watch the game. Unlike many of the seats in the ballpark, these are fully padded and quite comfortable, with a great view of the game from behind centerfield.
As Choate sips from an electric-blue bottle of Bud Light, he tells me about his dwindling fortunes of late in unloading his unwanted season tickets. A father of four boys, close in age and all baseball fans, Choate has, along with a group of friends, held Nationals season tickets since the team returned to Washington. He uses four of his seats—near third base, just three rows back—when he comes to Nationals Park with his family. The two seats by the Red Loft are for when he takes in a game with a friend.
Choate, who works in real estate, added the two seats in the Red Loft to his ticket portfolio after getting a tour of the new stadium while it was still under construction, a perk for buyers of season tickets. He saw the Red Loft and had a hunch it would be popular. “I was half-right,” he says. Fans indeed seem to flock to the Loft, but many of them have bought cheap $5 or $10 tickets and migrate to the Loft’s railing for the entire game. Few actually buy seats and sit down.
The third-base seats have never been tough to unload. But since July, Choate has struggled to get rid of his Loft seats as overall ticket sales for Nationals games have slowed and the team has languished. “You can’t give them away anymore,” he says.
When asked why he thinks his tickets have become so hard to sell, Choate cites what he sees as the primary culprit: StubHub. Owned by eBay, the online marketplace for resold tickets of all kinds struck a five-year deal last year to serve as the exclusive resale venue for Major League Baseball tickets. This deal in essence shut down competing resale services administered by individual teams such as the Nationals, which in Choate’s view was a major blow to him and his fellow buyers of season tickets.
Prior to this year, the Nationals ran an online ticket-resale venue, Replay. Fans sold off their season tickets through Replay and, though they didn’t get cash payouts, they received credit to their account. Choate ended last year with upward of $3,000 in his, he says, and Replay charged only a minimal service charge of $2 or so for each ticket sold.
Though the Nationals did little to promote Replay, the service was starting to become popular, Choate says, and he and his friends planned to continue using it to unload their extra tickets. Then, after already buying another year of tickets and adding the Red Loft seats to his holdings, Choate learned of the StubHub deal. Unlike Replay, StubHub charges a hefty commission to both parties, skimming a 15 percent cut from the seller’s take and adding 10 percent to the buyer’s price tag.
The difference is both financial and philosophical, Choate says. Not only do buyers dislike paying the commission fee, but they object to the presence of an uninvited middleman. Choate says he never would have bought the two additional Loft seats if he’d known that StubHub would shove Replay offline.
“It’s unfortunate,” he says. “It’s really a bad thing for the fans, plain and simple.”
For its part, StubHub says Nationals season-ticket holders have responded positively to the change. The site gives sellers access to a much larger pool of potential buyers than they could reach otherwise, according to Joellen Ferrer, a corporate communications manager for StubHub. So far this year, the Web site has sold three times more in dollar volume for Nationals tickets than last year, and the average selling price for a Nationals ticket has actually dropped from $52 to $47, Ferrer writes in an e-mail.
“The partnership has provided fans with more choice and selection, which has reduced the overall ticket prices because of the marketplace dynamic of StubHub’s online platform,” she says. “Based on the sales numbers, it’s clear that both buyers and sellers are getting a tremendous amount of use and value out of the partnership, and fans are certainly still buying tickets.”
As Choate and I talk, several scoreless innings slip by, and Choate adds that the Nationals’ general lack of buzz has compounded his resale woes. He had expected the opening of the new ballpark to stoke interest among fans. Instead, vacant seats create oceans of blue throughout the stadium. According to the Web site baseball-reference.com, the Nationals rank 13th out of 16 among National League teams in 2008 attendance. Considering this, a T-shirt worn by a fan sitting in front of us takes on added irony, perhaps unintentionally.
top 10 reasons to see a home game at nationals park,” the shirt reads. Reason No. 8: we’ve got room for you and all your friends.
Choate blames the team’s ownership for skimping on talent. Many fans can’t even name one player, he says: “There’s not a person on the team to get you excited.”
Will he renew his season tickets for next year’s campaign? Yes, at least his prime seats by third base—but maybe not the Red Loft seats. That will depend on what the team’s management does during the off-season. “If they go out and sign anybody, I’ll keep them,” he says.
“Manny Ramirez,” he says. “That’s who they need to get. He’d fill the place up!” (Choate considers himself first and foremost a Red Sox fan.) He scans the empty seats and calculates the cost of hiring Ramirez, weighed against the profits the team could realize if it were able to sell out the stadium on a regular basis.
And the math works out nicely. “Hey, I just paid for him,” says Choate.