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Fans throw a curve

The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON -- When Oriole Park at Camden Yards opened in 1992, spectators packed the retro baseball palace not for days, but years. Orioles' attendance, routinely below 25,000 at Memorial Stadium, soared above 40,000 at the new park and remained there for nine seasons.

Sixteen years later, baseball teams are painfully learning that the glorious, extended honeymoons with fans may be all but over when it comes to new stadiums. Clubs are still building them, but fans aren't coming - at least not at the rate they did in the heady days of Camden Yards and Cleveland's Jacobs Field (now Progressive Field), which opened in 1994 and had a run of 455 consecutive sellouts. Those stadiums are considered forerunners for a new generation of appealing, fan-friendly parks.

The burst bubble is evident in Washington, where the Nationals might once have hoped for something approaching a Camden Yards-like boost from the sleek, $611 million ballpark that opened with a sellout on March 30. It's still early but, based on season-ticket sales, fans are staying away at a rate that has stunned industry observers, raising the question of whether baseball fans have grown jaded with their shiny new toys.

Nationals Park, with a capacity of 41,888, drew 20,487 and 23,340 for its second and third games, respectively, both on chilly evenings. That compared with crowds of 20,894 and 18,835 for the second and third games in their old stadium last year. The temperature was 70 degrees at game time last Thursday night for the fourth game, which attracted 24,549. It didn't help that the team took a seven-game losing streak into last night's game against the Atlanta Braves.

"What did B.B. King sing? 'The thrill is gone,'" said David Carter, executive director of the Sports Business Institute at the University of Southern California.

Sales of season tickets and their equivalents have risen from 15,000 to about 18,000 since the Nationals, formerly the Montreal Expos, moved this season from 46-year-old RFK Stadium to the steel, glass and concrete park on the Anacostia River.

"My gut tells me that is a pitiful number of season tickets after opening a brand-new stadium," said UMBC economics professor Dennis Coates, an expert on stadium financing. The Nationals had a season-ticket base of about 22,500 in their first season at RFK in 2005, meaning the club has lost the equivalent of 4,500 season ticket holders since then.

Season-ticket sales are a benchmark of success. The Nationals say overall ticket sales should pick up when the weather turns warmer and many fans return after getting their first glimpse of the park. Until then, team president Stan Kasten said he has no problem with the turnout. "Three-thousand full-season equivalents net, that's pretty good," Kasten said. "We're 11th in baseball this year. For a team still building, that's pretty strong. The hysteria about this baffles me."

Baseball teams typically sell more than 2.5 million additional tickets during the first eight seasons of a new park, according to a 2003 study by Coates and UMBC economics professor Brad Humphreys that concluded that attendance rose 24 percent in a stadium's first year.

The increase is often critical to states and cities that - like Washington - bankrolled the stadium and are eager for revenue to pay off debt. The city is financing the stadium with a tax on large businesses and on stadium concessions, among other sources.

But the study contained a glimmer of bad news, too. It found that the boon from a stadium opening was waning, possibly owing to "the glut of new stadiums opened in the last decade."

Dennis Howard of the University of Oregon's Warsaw Sports Marketing Center agreed that "the honeymoon is not prolonged for most teams. Two-thirds of the teams that moved into new stadiums since 1999 have seen a significant decrease in attendance after the first year."

In Pittsburgh, the UMBC study said, attendance fell more than 26 percent in 2002 - the second year of PNC Park. Attendance tumbled 21.7 percent in Detroit in 2002 after the excitement had faded from Comerica Park's opening in 2000.

In Washington, hosts of a Sports Talk 980 radio program recently marveled at how the stadium seemed to have generated relatively little buzz.

Carter says that may be because Washingtonians already got what they really wanted - a team. The district went 33 seasons without baseball before the former Montreal Expos arrived in 2005.

Former Maryland Stadium Authority Chairman John Moag says Washington fans may be difficult to impress. "The folks in D.C. have experienced a new baseball stadium, and that's Oriole Park. So the novelty of a new park isn't so novel in D.C," said Moag, founder of a Baltimore-based investment banking firm with sports clients.

But Moag cautioned: "It's really early, and it's tough to make conclusions." He said it's hard to compare Nationals Park to Camden Yards because "there really was nothing else like Camden Yards in the country. It was the return to a classic look of a ballpark, and people went to the park and were blown away by it."

The Nationals drew an average of 24,217 fans last season at RFK, 14th in the National League and down from more than 33,000 in the team's first year. Their smallest crowds came in April, which the franchise believes will be the case this season, too.

The Orioles have a vested interest in the Washington stadium's success. That's because the Orioles and Nationals share the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network, the regional system that televises both teams' games. "We definitely want them to succeed," Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos said.

The Orioles, who got off to a hot start on the field, have average attendance of 21,092 - compared with Washington's 26,941 in its first four games - at home this season, including a record-low crowd of 10,505. Angelos says chilly weather has kept attendance down.

Carter and others say Washington fans' concerns about parking and ticket prices could be factors limiting turnout so far. Many fans said they had anticipated heavy congestion around the stadium, particularly during weeknight rush hours.

The team has been running free shuttle buses from RFK to the new stadium to try to ease traffic and worries. By most accounts, it appears to be working. "There were 50 buses waiting for us when we arrived, and it took 10 minutes to get to the stadium," said Richard Abraham of Columbia.

And then there's the team's record. RFK attendance was aided in 2005 when the Nationals were in first place for several months. Last year, the club went 73-89, and this is another rebuilding year.

Washington is a city with many transplants who support teams from around the nation. But the city has long rallied behind the NFL's Redskins and supports other teams well, when they win.

D.C. Council Member Phil Mendelson said things would look brighter if only the team were winning. "The Nats losing brings back memories of last year. You have to really like baseball to go out and see that," he said.

Jeff.barker@baltsun.com

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