Tuesday, February 17, 2015

How the "10 Days of Teddy" Unwittingly Exposed the Nats' Fan Problem

As I'm sure you're aware, the "10 Days of Teddy" ended last Friday. The contest was meant to commemorate the Nationals' 10th anniversary in Washington, DC, by unveiling 10 special promotional items the team will give away this year (never mind that 2015 is actually their 11th season). The conceit was that the team's famous racing president, Teddy, would show up at 10 random locations around metro Washington, tweet a clue about his location, and then give away free tickets to the first person to find him using the clue.

The result was a fun little scavenger hunt, not dissimilar from many other teams' marketing campaigns around this time of year to get people excited for the coming season. To most people, that's probably all it was—but since when has this blog passed up an opportunity to overanalyze something? More than a mere contest, the 10 Days of Teddy gave us a peek into how the business half of the Nationals front office thinks—and it wasn't pretty. The team's choices and approach for the promotion subconsciously revealed how flawed its view of the DC sports fan base is and how distastefully weighted its priorities are toward corporate sponsors and elites.

This is all based on the geographic pattern of where Teddy landed each of the 10 days. It's very hard to find a pattern that is truly random, and you can be sure that a lot of thought went into this one. Teddy would have to appear at strategic points: major gathering places, easily accessible transportation nexuses, densely populated office clusters, and/or landmarks well-known enough to provide a solvable clue. There are countless places around Washington that meet these criteria, so it's a shame that the Nats chose the 10 that they did.

This Google map of Teddy's 10 hangouts reveals three in Maryland, three in Virginia, and three in Northwest DC; that left just one for the three more neglected quadrants of the District: Northeast, Southwest, and Southeast. Likewise, only one rendezvous point was located anywhere east of 11th St. NW. (The exception in both cases was the final day of Teddy, when he finally showed up in Northeast—albeit at Union Station, just one block into the quadrant at 1st and F St. NE and a hub for suburban commuters.)

For those who don't know DC, this is a problem because the city gets more disadvantaged the farther east you go. Indeed, if you were looking to draw a line between the haves and the have-nots, you could do a lot worse than 11th St. NW. The Nats clearly followed the money with their 10 Days of Teddy, but in so doing they ignored the bulk of the nation's capital—the non-federal city, where residents have suffered dilapidated schools and unsafe streets since before the current crop of yuppies moved to town, and will for years after they've left. Instead, the 10 Days of Teddy focused on paying fealty to DC's elites: the District Building (Washington's city hall), the Pentagon, and Union Station, just a few blocks north of the Capitol. Many of the stops also appeared to be cross-promotions with the Nationals' main sponsors, such as the random visits to the Hard Times Cafe in Clarendon and the Harris Teeter in Potomac. Although corporate interests will never disappear from baseball, a team is also a social institution, and it should serve underprivileged areas and people with equal opportunity.

There's a racial element, too; the Nats' tour did not visit any predominantly minority neighborhoods, which unfortunately tend to be the parts of Northeast and Southeast that have been left behind economically. Although the entire nation has ignored it for decades, Washington is an African American city first and foremost. When I worked for the Boston Red Sox, minority outreach was a corporate priority, reflecting both an awareness of the Red Sox' checkered racial record and the reality that Boston has become a majority-minority city. If they have similar priorities, the Nationals did a good job hiding it with their choice of 10 Days of Teddy locations.

You can argue this analysis isn't entirely fair. Given that the promotion took place Monday through Friday from 11am to 1pm, it makes sense that the Nats would target the downtown area and other concentrations of office buildings, rather than residential areas. This would be a valid defense of the Nats—if the map showed that was really what they were doing. But, in fact, only three locations (the District Building, Union Station, and the Pentagon) were truly business districts anywhere close to the city center. Another four, all in the suburbs (Clarendon, Alexandria, Bethesda, and Silver Spring) were more mixed-use. This leaves three (Mt. Pleasant, the National Zoo, and Potomac) in predominantly residential areas. Surely the Nats could have spared one of those residential slots for Brookland or Anacostia instead.

You can argue that the Nats are just going where the fans are—that's probably what the Nats thought when they were designing the promotion. But it is incredibly short-sighted to think that Nats fans can only be found in "good" neighborhoods or the suburbs. Of course there are baseball fans in the inner city—and, more importantly, there are potential fans. Although the case for baseball's death by demographics has been overstated, the game is losing ground to sports like basketball in America's poor urban areas thanks to the high costs of playing youth baseball.

The Nationals should be especially sensitive to this issue, as they have one of the most acute cases of urban-fan-apathy in the major leagues. FanGraphs recently published an excellent analysis by Mike Lortz comparing MLB attendance figures to Census data—specifically, the number of people living within a 30-minute radius of each ballpark. The Nats are one of only two teams with more than two million people within 30 minutes as well as average weekend attendance over 20% higher than average weekday attendance. (The other is the Chicago White Sox, who, it's worth noting, have a borderline attendance crisis on their hands.) What this means in layman's terms is that the Nationals are over-reliant on suburban fans. Suburbanites are more likely to make the trip to the ballpark on weekends, when games are during the day and they don't have work on one end and a fast-approaching bedtime on the other cutting into their travel time to and from the game. Conversely, the depressed weekday attendance shows that the Nats are underperforming with city-dwelling fans, despite easy public-transit access to the ballpark and the 2.25 million Washingtonians who can get home within 30 minutes of the final out.

The Nats need these 2.25 million extra fans in order to be a sustainable franchise. Their current suburban base simply isn't enough; various analyses have determined that the Nats probably have the fewest fans, in raw numbers, of any team in baseball. Yet the 10 Days of Teddy betrayed how the team doesn't appear to be reaching out to urban demographics. Imagine Teddy showing up in one of the neighborhoods that has grown accustomed to being ignored; imagine the disproportionate amount of excitement for baseball it would gin up among those who have never seen Teddy up close before. It wouldn't be a cure-all, but giving free Opening Day tickets to a poor family who never would have dreamed they could be there—instead of someone who was already paying to go anyway—would be a good, even necessary, first step. The Nationals are going to have to win these fans over one by one, and the 10 Days of Teddy missed their chance to start.

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