27 May 2011

What Exactly Builds A Fan Base?

In anticipation of the 2004-2005 NHL lockout, Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis decided the team needed a complete rebuild. Six years later, looking at the first post-lockout team's roster and this past year's team roster you will notice four common threads: Ovechkin, Green, Bradley, and Laich. All four started that 2005 season for the team and continue to be foundational players today.

The same year that the NHL was experiencing its CBA battle, MLB finally decided what it was going to do with the long decaying team ... they shipped it to the Capital Of The Free World. Now, quickly, name one person who started the year in 2005 who is still on the team.

Liván Hernández? I'll give you partial credit here. While he did come over with the Expos in 2005, he did stints with four other teams beginning in 2006 before being brought back to the Nationals late last season.

Ryan Zimmerman? I'll again give you partial credit. He was called up in September of that year but didn't play his first full year until the following year. He is currently on the IR list, but he is still the most recognizable player and the cornerstone of the team.

So let's recap. Washington Capitals on the team since 2005 = 4 players. Washington Nationals on the team since 2005 = 2 partial credits.

(You'll notice that I've not included the Washington Redskins. They always have and probably always will have a large, solid fan base; so there's nothing to build. You'll also notice that I haven't included the Washington Wizards. This year, under new owner Ted Leonsis (yes, the very same Ted), they have begun their own rebuild. It will be a few years before we start seeing fruit from that seed. Also excluded is D.C. United. While soccer may never be huge, per se, the team has a very loud and very loyal base.)

The point I'm getting to ... or trying to get to ... is that people attach to players and, in turn, to teams. And that bond gets solidified when the team, with those players, start winning. Just think of the Washington Wizards during part of this same time period. They made the playoffs for four seasons in a row. If it weren't for the injuries, nonsense, and dismantling of the team during the mid-Aughts, the team would probably still be perennial playoff contenders and command a huge fan base. But the winning stopped, the players were traded off, and new unfamiliar faces were brought in. And attendance dropped from its 18,372 average in 2007 to 16,791 average this past season.

So how, exactly, do the Lerners expect to build a solid fan base for the Nationals when their roster sees such large turnovers?

They could be starting to get it. The farm system is getting solid and their minor league stars are starting to come up to the big league. Ryan Zimmerman was the first of the home-grown players and we're seeing more added each year. Ownership needs to stay on this course its finally laid. It needs to pay to keep its in-house staff and it needs to pay to add necessary "mercenary" pieces. This team lost a lot of goodwill and eager want-to-be-fans with the missteps taken from 2005 to 2009 (myself included).

I'd love to be a diehard Nationals fan. But, guys, you have to give me familiar faces to root for and reasons why I should care. Right now, it's pretty difficult to do that.


Critically Urban said...

I think with the addition of Strasburg and Harper hopefully next year it will be a lot easier. Considering their contracts, they should be around for many years. Hopefully they'll be good, too.

The Diarist said...

I agree. As I said in the end there, this ownership seems to start to get it. If they can keep on this course and grow (and retain) their own stars instead of revamping the lineup every other year, they'll have a bright future. These new kids are good stuff.