The Nationals’ Big Marketing Mistake

After their first complete homestand at the new Nationals Park, the Washington Nationals are ranked 20th among Major League Baseball teams in home attendance, and averaging fewer paid spectators than the team did at this point in their first season at RFK stadium.

Perhaps most striking is the lack of bodies in the new stadium’s most visible seats — the “Presidential Seats” which sit directly behind home plate and serve as a backdrop for televised shots of the batter’s box.

Possible reasons for the lackluster attendance have been much debated. Team president Stan Kasten says he’s “very pleased” with attendance given the cold weather and the hot playoff pursuits of other DC sports teams. Others have cited the high cost of Nationals Park tickets and concessions, or the team’s losing record.

I blame it on The Myth.

The Myth was born from a well-intentioned effort to promote the use of Metro to get to Nationals home games. Team, city, and Metro officials worked their tails off to get the word out. They talked about it non-stop, held press events, and devoted significant advertising and PR dollars to the cause.

The problem? They put the creative message in the hands of marketing amateurs, and the campaign went negative.

Why not? Negative works, right? Fear, uncertainty, and doubt are some of the greatest tools in the marketing arsenal. Attacking the competition (in this case, trying to park at the Park) is a time-tested and reliable method of getting people’s attention. Positive is boring.

So the message got delivered, and it wasn’t “Take Metro!” or “Try our free parking shuttle!” The message was clear. Parking is a nightmare. Take Metro or your life will be miserable.

Local news producers love fear, uncertainty, and doubt. It helps them invent drama where none exists. So they jumped on the bandwagon quickly with “public interest” feature stories about how terrible the parking situation is going to be.

A radio ad running non-stop for the last 6 weeks profiles a man who drives around Nationals Park for inning after inning looking for a parking spot. The man is desperate. He is miserable. He misses the entire game. The voiceover intones “Don’t drive and try to park at Nationals Park!”

It worked too well.

I know dozens of people who have shared or partial-season ticket plans. In March, as they picked their games, everybody told me that they were trying to avoid the first few homestands, “to let them get this parking and traffic mess figured out.”

The Myth is that transportation to Nationals Park is a nightmare, and this myth was created by the team itself. I haven’t seen any meaningful traffic, parking, or crowd issues. It’s time for the powers that be to pull this campaign and go positive instead.

What about you? Has perception matched transportation reality? Do you know people who have avoided Nationals Park because of traffic/parking fears? Have you done so yourself?

Nationals Park from photo by Flickr user Ouij.
Navy Yard Metro from photo by Flickr user MissChatter.

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8 Responses

  1. i said the same thing yesterday! glad to know i’m not the only one that has this opinion.

    http://bottomfeederbaseball.blogspot.com/2008/04/where-is-everybody.html

    best,
    Dave

  2. Thanks. Great perspective from your terrific blog. This topic isn’t usually my wheelhouse, but after making similar comments on so many other blogs, I figured I should make the point here as well. It’s just driving me crazy.

  3. THANK YOU!! I have been trying to figure out how to say this for the past week. The Nats SCARED people away with the relentless push of Metro.

  4. Gotta admit, you bring up a good point. But I think everybody was apprehensive about Metro and traffic down there anyway — not that they necessarily needed to be made more apprehensive, I grant you.

    The good news is that Metro and the RFK Nats Shuttle have turned out to be two reasonable, well-running transportation alternatives. We can use some good news right now, so I’m scoring that a win.

  5. I’m sorry to disagree, but the marketing problem is much, much larger.

    I blogged on it:

    http://nats3play.blogspot.com/2008/04/attendance-woes-no-marketing-woes.html

    However, the entire message is wrong. It’s not just parking. It’s the entire message. The message is about the park (which then is a message about how bad it is to get there) not a message about baseball, and certainly no effort to bond with the team.

    This has to change. Fast.

  6. Dave,

    As another person who thinks about marketing all day, I agree with you wholeheartedly. The Nationals’ media plan is just textbook wrong, and all those empty suites and presidential suites are a marketing asset completely wasted.

    I will stick to my contention that the fear campaign is marketing mistake #1, head and shoulders above all others. It has had a halo effect on the media, drowning out all positive stories on the new park, and snuffing out what should be the top message all spring (one which, BTW should require very little in the way of marketing dollars. All these stories should be about the park — not about the park-ing).

  7. I’ve seen a lot of empty parking lots so far, although the RFK option seems to be popular.

    I’ve also just started hearing ads on the radio telling people that they don’t need to be season-ticket-holders to get a parking pass.

  8. I’m glad they’re advertising that, though it’s more evidence that their marketing backfired. They have empty space in the garages because even season ticket holders were scared away from buying parking passes.

    I am one shining example. We declined to buy the parking not only because of the price, but because we listened to Stan and assumed driving would be a nightmare.

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