If you took a stroll around town on Nov. 3, 2019, and asked a random sampling of 100 people on the streets who the most popular professional team in D.C. was at that moment, there’s a good chance more people would’ve said the Nationals than anyone else.
The fact they had just held a parade for the World Series champs 24 hours earlier probably would’ve played a role in that, but that championship really was the culmination of something that had been building for some time. After two decades without much of any real athletic success around here, the Nationals’ World Series run had capped off a fantastic stretch that also saw the Capitals win their first Stanley Cup and the Mystics win their first WNBA crown.
And with due respect to both of those franchises, the Nats were the most popular of the bunch. And because the not-yet-renamed local football was still stuck in the mud, spinning its wheels and unable to dig itself out of the self-made hole it created many years earlier, it was safe to say that for the first time, Washington truly was a baseball town above all else.
This seemed to have staying power, too. Maybe the Nationals weren’t going to go back to the World Series in 2020, but they were going to be reaping the benefits of this championship for some time. Season-ticket sales would go up, as would television ratings. They were going to be the top dogs in town for the foreseeable future, barring something catastrophic.
Which, sadly, is exactly what happened. When the world essentially shut down in March 2020, the ramifications for the Nationals were massive. Gone was the victory lap they were expecting to take, and everything that would’ve come with it. And by the time the world was beginning to feel normal again a year later, it was too late to get it back.
Combine that with the collapse of the team on the field as the 2021 season played out, and now you’re left with this: The Nationals are coming off their worst season since 2009, with a completely different roster and a franchise rebuild in full swing that even in a best-case scenario will take a couple of years to complete.
How much has the organization’s standing around town plummeted? It’s hard to know for sure at this point, but it’s not trending in a good direction.
From an attendance standpoint, 2021 was a disaster. The Nationals drew only 1.465 million fans, an average of 18,093 per game, lowest in club history. Now, it’s not really fair to compare that number to any previous season, because there were some unique circumstances never experienced before and likely never to be experienced again. Because of D.C.’s strict coronavirus regulations, the Nats weren’t allowed to play in front of more than 5,000 fans on opening day, and though that number slowly grew, they weren’t allowed to play in front of a full house until mid-June.
But even when you count only the 53 home games that were played after the city allowed full capacity again, the Nationals drew an average crowd of 22,959. That’s not terrible, not at all. But that’s not even close to what you’d have expected them to draw the year after they won the World Series.
Where does this all leave them heading into 2022? Season ticket sales certainly will be down, and attendance on April and May weeknights won’t be pretty. It’ll pick up, as it always does, once school gets out and the weather warms up, but unless the team is more competitive on the field than expected, it’s probably too much to count on attendance topping two million, a total the Nationals reached with plenty of room to spare every season from 2012-19.
Now, attendance is hardly the lone indicator of a franchise’s health. The Nats may not draw as well next year as they’d like, but there are still far more fans and far more awareness of the team now than there were the last time they were in rebuilding mode. A whole generation of kids has grown up since then and become lifelong fans. They aren’t about to disappear.
But the idea that the Nationals could be the No. 1 sports franchise in town probably is foolish at this point. The Caps continue to be perennial contenders, and will continue to be as long as Alex Ovechkin keeps lacing up his skates. The Wizards are off to a surprisingly great start and might just garner more than token attention for the first time in a long time. Soccer continues to grow in popularity, and the Spirit’s National Women’s Soccer League title captured over the weekend will only help. And the Washington Football Team, for all its issues, has suddenly won back-to-back games in impressive fashion and has given fans on the edge reason to keep hanging on for now.
The Nationals can regain the perch they were beginning to establish two years ago, if the rebuild is done right, if the organization markets itself well and if fans can see success returning in the not-too-distant future.
But, unfortunately, they’ve got to make up some ground now. A lot of it was out of their control, and the timing couldn’t have been worse. But this is the challenge they now face after the double-whammy of a pandemic and a roster teardown in the wake of the greatest moment in franchise history.