On Bryce Harper And Attendance Boosts

Washington, D.C., USA; Washington Nationals teammates Bryce Harper (34) and Jayson Werth (28) celebrate at home plate after shortstop Ian Desmond (not pictured) hits the game-winning two-run home run in the ninth inning against the Arizona Diamondbacks at Nationals Park. The Nationals defeated the Diamondbacks 5 - 4. Mandatory Credit: Joy R. Absalon-US PRESSWIRE

Washington Nationals attendance didn't skyrocket when Bryce Harper started playing at home. Nor would we expect it to.

Stephen Strasburg made his major-league debut on June 8, 2010. He made it at home, starting for the Nationals against the Pirates, and you probably remember at least a little of how the game went. It was hyped up to heaven and Strasburg somehow still managed to exceed the astronomical expectations before a national audience. The game drew more than 40,000 fans to Nationals Park. The game the next day, without Strasburg, drew fewer than half as many fans. Or sold fewer than half as many tickets. You know what I mean.

Strasburg's second start came on the road, in Cleveland. On Saturday, June 12 - when the Nationals started J.D. Martin - the Indians sold roughly 19,000 tickets. On Sunday, June 13 - when the Nationals started Strasburg - the Indians sold roughly 33,000 tickets.

And so on. Stephen Strasburg drew. Wherever he went, Stephen Strasburg drew, and he of course drew well in D.C. Strasburg looked like a young, flame-throwing ace. He gave Nationals fans something to be excited about. They already could've been excited about Ryan Zimmerman, but Zimmerman's appeal couldn't compare to Strasburg's appeal.

Bryce Harper made his major-league debut on April 28, 2012. That was in Los Angeles. Harper made his home debut on Tuesday. The Nationals sold nearly 23,000 tickets. In their previous Tuesday home game, the Nationals sold about 18,000 tickets. On Wednesday, with Harper again in the lineup, the Nationals sold just over 16,000 tickets.

It all led Jerry Crasnick to issue the following remark:

On its own, it's a harmless observation. Crasnick is paid to write things based upon his observations. Some people took issue with what they thought Crasnick was trying to imply. Okay, we don't need to start talking about the people on the Internet who look for any reason to get upset. Those people are everywhere! They are the worst! You might even be one of them!

Clearly, Harper isn't giving the Nationals the attendance boost that Strasburg did in 2010. It's very early, but we'd expect the boost to be the biggest early. Now, there are reasons for this. Most significantly, Harper is an everyday position player, while Strasburg is an every-five-days starting pitcher. You'd think that a starting pitcher would draw better than a position player, because a starting pitcher is involved in half of the game, and doesn't get just a handful of at-bats. And a starting pitcher has more opportunities to wow. More opportunities to show his talent to the world. Fans are more likely to go to the ballpark specifically to see an ace than they are to go to the ballpark specifically to see a guy bat four times and maybe make a play or two in the field.

But, keep on looking. Strasburg made his final home start in 2010 on August 15. The Nationals sold about 22,000 tickets. The day before - a Saturday - when the Nationals started Jason Marquis, they sold about 22,000 tickets. When Strasburg returned to the majors after injury in September 2011, his first game sold about 3,500 more tickets than the game before. This year, Strasburg has started two games at home, and there's no evidence of an attendance boost at all. His first start sold fewer tickets than the home game before and the home game after. His second start sold a few more tickets than the home game before, but it was also on a Saturday.

The Stephen Strasburg single-game attendance boost has all but evaporated. And, honestly, this isn't much of a surprise. People have struggled to find evidence of big player-specific attendance boosts in the past. Players have big drawing power at first, but then they lose their novelty. People start to take them for granted. Think about your favorite team. Think about the best player on your favorite team. You take him for granted. You monster!

Here's how players can have a real, long-lasting impact on attendance: by being awesome. An awesome player doesn't necessarily compel people to buy tickets and go to the ballpark, but he gets people talking. He gets them more interested away from the ballpark, and maybe he gets them to tune in more often on TV. And, of course, a team is more likely to be good with an awesome player than with a less awesome player. You know what's the biggest driver for attendance? Winning. People want to buy tickets to see amazing things, but more than anything else, they want to buy tickets to see their team beat the other team. As much as we can get wrapped up in individual success, we care a lot more about team success.

Strasburg generated a short-term attendance boost, but that went away. If Harper has generated an attendance boost, it's small. But Strasburg is an incredible starting pitcher, and Harper could be an incredible outfielder. We're talking one current superstar, and another potential superstar. The Nationals are sitting in first place in the NL East, and if they are to stay there, presumably Strasburg and Harper would be big reasons. And the longer the Nationals stay in contention, the more people they'll get interested, and the more people they'll get down to the ballpark.

This is where the attendance boosts become kind of indirect and very difficult to measure. Not that many people are probably going to go down to Nationals Park specifically to see Strasburg or Harper. But they'll go down to see a competitive Nationals team, and the Nationals wouldn't be as competitive without Strasburg and Harper. So the attendance boost would be the difference between the Nationals' attendance and what the Nationals' attendance would be with worse players. It's real, but it's also ... well you'll never be able to put a number to that.

Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper will help the Nationals sell more tickets. Maybe a lot more tickets. Provided that they're good and the team is good, and in that regard it's all green lights at the moment. We'll probably never be able to know just how many more tickets the Nationals sold because of these two players, but just because we won't know the number wouldn't mean the number doesn't exist.


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