The Washington Nationals average 31,684 fans per game at home, best in the National League East, an increase over a year ago. The Chicago Cubs are the World Series champions, a team with a nationwide fan base enjoying its first title defense in 108 seasons. And in the first three games of a marquee series at Nationals Park, the Nationals couldn’t even once match their average crowd.
“Maybe it’s not as big to the people here as it is to both these teams,” Nationals Manager Dusty Baker said following Wednesday night’s 8-4 victory for Washington, a game seen by 31,072 good folks — but distinguished, as the first two games of the series were, by blocks of empty seats.
And yet, the crowds for the weekend games against middling Cincinnati: 36,347, 40,139 and 35,387.
The calculus for all this is, quite obviously, complex. But it’s also quite clear, with the series finale against the Cubs set for Thursday afternoon, that the Nationals contributed to the lackluster crowds with a pricing strategy and ticketing policies that could generously be called aggressive.
But before we get to that, be clear about one thing: The players definitely notice the atmosphere, good, bad or indifferent.
“It’s summertime,” Bryce Harper said Wednesday night. “I’d be at the beach, too. It’s hot out, and things like that.”
Game-time temperatures Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday: 80, 79 and 80. Odds of getting three consecutive more comfortable nights before Labor Day are about as good as the Phillies making the World Series.
Harper, then, is being magnanimous.
“We relish and need sellouts,” Baker said. “If the Cubs fans weren’t here, we’d probably have a half-filled stadium, because about 40 percent of them were Cub fans. … We’d rather have all red, but we’ll take blue as long as we have butts in the seats.”
Nationals officials clearly saw the four-game Cubs series as an opportunity to draw large crowds at high prices. Last year, when Chicago played a Monday-Wednesday series at Nationals Park in mid-June, the crowds were 37,187, 41,955 and 42,000 — and the environment was perhaps the best of the regular season.
This year, the four Cubs games were listed in the preseason pricing structure as “Diamond” games, the highest of four tiers of pricing the Nationals offer. The only other Diamond game on the schedule was Opening Day. Even the annual Fourth of July game, this year against the Mets, is a step down.
That means there were higher prices across the board for the Cubs series. The July 5 game against the Mets, for instance, is in the “Regular” tier of pricing — the lowest. The most expensive seat is $370. A dugout box seat is $90. The cheapest advance-purchase ticket is $12.
But for the Cubs games, the increases were significant. For Thursday’s series finale, the high-end Delta Sky360 Club seat runs $450. The dugout box seats are $140 apiece. And the right-field terrace seat — that cheap ticket that is the price of the movie less than a week from now — is $35.
The smallest game-over-game increase is $18 for seats in the scoreboard pavilion, gallery and upper gallery sections. Those seats, for the Cubs finale, are $40, $50 and $39, respectively. For the July 5 Mets game: $22, $32 and $21, respectively. Seven of the 16 different pricing sections had markups of at least $40 per ticket for the Cubs games.
“Totally understand it,” Harper said. “In the playoffs, they show up for us and do the things that they can. And they show up on the weekends for us. During the week, it’s definitely tough. I don’t want to drive on 395 and fight traffic, either.”
But there are season-ticket holders who have committed to fighting traffic, to being here every night. Even they felt restricted by this series.
Fans who buy season-ticket plans — full or partial — are entered into a “Red Carpet Rewards” program that allows them to accumulate points they can then use to spend on a variety of things, including seat upgrades, suites — or more tickets. But the four games against the Cubs joined a handful of other games — Opening Day, Memorial Day weekend, the Fourth of July, etc. — in being blocked from using points. So the team’s most loyal fans couldn’t invite friends to see what, by the club’s own acknowledgment, was the most attractive series of the year.
Yet even with all that, it’s still kind of staggering. Tuesday night, Max Scherzer and Jake Arrieta — the National League’s past two Cy Young Award winners — faced each other on a perfect summer evening. And yet a random Tuesday two weeks earlier against the Braves — who bring very few out-of-town fans and have a rather lousy product — drew 560 more fans.
“I’d rather watch it on TV from my couch,” Harper said, deadpanning a bit. “That MLB plan is pretty good. Great coverage.”
By pricing the Cubs tickets the way they did, that’s essentially the message the Nationals sent to their fans.