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"The disposable income in this market is pretty astounding," says Nationals president Tony Tavares. "All you have to do is look at the housing prices. Everything is hugely expensive. It rivals New York City and San Francisco."
As families migrated to the suburbs, the District itself lost about 25% of its population since the Senators left. The area's spending power is generated by huge private-sector growth in the surrounding counties of Northern Virginia and southwestern Maryland. The local economy relies far less on government jobs and more on private government support industries, such as defense contractors, than it did in 1971.
The Nationals have a season-ticket base of about 22,000, fifth-largest in the majors, according to Bowden. They have already sold about 2 million tickets for their inaugural season--more than the second edition of the Senators (1961-71) sold in their first four years combined. RFK, a 1960s multipurpose ballpark slapped thick with new makeup, is easily accessible by the Metro, a subway system with tentacles into the suburbs that was linked to RFK in 1977, six years after the Senators left. The stadium may have a shabby, retro look that brings back memories--absolutely none of them historically significant--for Senators fans, but it lacks the luxury-box revenues that help drive the modern game.
The Nationals expect their 41,000-seat ballpark on the Anacostia River to help bring them into the financial neighborhood of the National League East--rival Atlanta Braves, New York Mets and Philadelphia Phillies. The city intends to veer from the well-traveled path of redbrick, green-seated retro parks with a gleaming structure that is uniquely Washington, perhaps featuring white marble, stone, glass, columns, rotundas and other elements of the neoclassical and Georgian architecture around the city. The iconic dome of the U.S. Capitol, less than a mile away, will loom in clear view beyond leftfield.
"We played the Phillies to open the season, and they have a payroll about $50 million more than ours," said Bowden, who's making do with a $48 million payroll this year, up from $41 million in 2004. "That's tough. If you're not within 10, 15 million dollars of your competitors, it becomes very tough. I think in the future we should be able to have roughly the same kind of payroll as other teams in the East."
The team's annual revenue from local television broadcasts, which were nonexistent in Montreal, will be between $21 million and $25 million under a deal MLB cut to mollify Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos, who owns the baseball broadcast rights in the Baltimore-D.C. area and could have threatened a lawsuit claiming the relocation of the Expos to D.C. would harm his franchise. Angelos will own and operate the regional sports network that will carry Nationals and Orioles games, a tremendous inventory of programming that could bring a windfall of profits. The Nationals, with their fixed fee from the network, will not benefit from its growth. In a co-bylined op-ed piece in The Washington Post last week, Washington mayor Anthony A. Williams and District Council member Jack Evans nevertheless praised the Nationals' TV take as better than that of 17 other clubs.
As was evident last Thursday, the rivalry between the Nationals and the Orioles is likely to be intense on and off the field. When a large group of fans held to Baltimore tradition and belted out a loud "O!" during the last stanza of the national anthem, an even larger group shouted them down with boos. One fan hung a banner in the upper deck that read, DEAR ANGELOS, U STINK. SIGNED, EVERYONE.
The two clubs are likely to fight over a swath of fans and revenues that could go either way. "If an impact shows up, it will likely be in ticket revenues and [luxury] box sales," Tavares says. "I know that's what [ Angelos] fears. I have every confidence that this is a win-win for all fans. But there will be some impact [on the Orioles]. I hope for Peter's sake he isn't hurt too badly."
For now, the Nationals can bask in their flavor-of-the-month popularity, an effect that tends to wear off with new clubs. Three of the past four expansion teams suffered double-digit drops in per-game attendance in their second seasons: the Diamondbacks (16%), the Florida Marlins (13%) and the Tampa Bay Devil Rays (38%). (The Colorado Rockies' second-year attendance increased by 3%.) But Washington can add to its fan base by playing the kind of scrappy, winning baseball the town hasn't seen for generations.
On Thursday, for instance, after President Bush had opened the new era with a high, hard one from the pitching rubber, the Nationals prevailed primarily because a righthander who had fled oppression in Cuba ( Hernandez) threw one-hit ball into the ninth inning and a Mexican national without U.S. voting privileges ( Vinny Castilla) smacked a double, a triple and a home run. What a country! The 45,596 fans welcomed their Nats with cheers that made the decks of the old stadium shimmy. Most of the former vagabond Expos had never experienced anything like it.