WASHINGTON — For most of their existence, the Washington Nationals have grouped their biggest giveaways on Saturdays, a tactic that helped ensure a sellout crowd, or at least close to it.
Case in point: Gio Gonzalez’s bobblehead night on Saturday, April 13, 2013, attendance 41,992, while Davey Johnson’s on Saturday, July 20 of that year drew 41,816. These ranked as the second- and third-largest home crowds of the year, behind only Opening Day. Bryce Harper’s bobblehead giveaway on Sunday, June 23 that year drew 39,307, the seventh-largest home crowd of the year.
But in the last few years, the Nats have started to scatter bobblehead giveaways (and similar hot ticket items like garden gnomes or Chia Pets) around the week — a Thursday here, a Wednesday there. And this year, they’ve had a pair of their biggest giveaways on Monday nights, traditionally the lowest attendance night of the week. They have another planned for Tuesday night — the Dusty Baker bobblehead.
The idea of shifting major giveaways to weekdays to drive attendance on slower nights makes sense intuitively, and the numbers seem to bear out that it’s a sound monetary strategy this year. Now that the team is averaging better than 36,000 on Saturdays (not including the makeup game of the doubleheader on May 14) and 34,000 on Sundays this year without major giveaways, there’s no need to try to drive attendance those days. And the change in strategy seems to be helping boost their slow nights, on paper at least.
There’s just one problem — it’s rained for all three of their big weeknight giveaways. Not enough to postpone the game, mind you, but enough to drive people home early, whether they snagged their item and left immediately, or simply couldn’t wait out a three-hour game plus a delay on a work/school night.
As Dan Steinberg of The Washington Post has chronicled, that has only added to the perception of Nats fans as more casual than those of division rivals, packing it in whenever they feel like it as opposed to when the game actually ends, often to the dismay of the broadcasters, who have a bird’s eye view of the masses streaming for the center field exits.
It’s one thing to announce a big number. But when that number finally gets posted on the videoboard late in the game, if the bodies in the stands don’t come close to matching it, how much is lost? Is it worth the number on paper if the vibe in the crowd, the ones the players always talk about, is missing?
There are many variables that factor into attendance on any given night, ranging from day of the week, to weather, to opponent, to whether or not school is out yet. Nevertheless, the weeknight giveaway numbers are hard to argue.
The team drew 35,695 on Wednesday, May 11, a cool, rainy day that topped out at 61 degrees, an excellent number. Sure, it was Jordan Zimmermann’s return to D.C., but clearly the attendance was driven by the Bryce Harper MVP bobblehead giveaway.
The Nats drew more than 11,000 fewer fans (24,476) the previous night in the second game of the series, and 27,153 in the opener of the set that Monday. The bobblehead night draw was also more than 5,000 fans more than the average of their other Wednesday gates this year (30,522).
Later that month, 31,264 paid for attendance at the Max Scherzer no-hitter bobblehead giveaway on Monday, May 23. It rained and stormed that day as well, though there was less than a fifth of an inch of accumulation. But that was a rivalry game against the Mets. The Nats drew significantly better each of the following two nights, when 33,096 and 38,700 turned out. Of course, it was 10 degrees warmer with clearer skies.
Finally, on Monday, June 27, again against the Mets, Washington pulled 33,109 for the Jayson Werth and Pet figurine, a few thousand more than they would draw the next night (29,918) but almost identical to Wednesday’s series finale (33,386). It rained and dumped .35 inches in the opener, stormed worse Tuesday, and was clear Wednesday.
But compared to other Mondays, both those numbers look quite strong. The Nats have averaged 27,486 on non-giveaway Mondays in 2016, but that number is buoyed by a huge Cubs crowd when Chicago was in town. Take away that date, and the remaining two non-major giveaway Mondays averaged just 22,636 fans.
As the weather hasn’t cooperated, though, it’s made for some hollow numbers on those rainy weeknights, when you can hear Charlie Slowes and Dave Jageler’s disappointed voices ringing around the largely empty lower bowl as people head for the exits early.
With the Dodgers — a solid road draw — in town, the Nats seem to be likely to best their Tuesday average draw of 28,294. But if storms roll in again Tuesday night, will we see a repeat of the same?