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Like any newer franchise, the Washington Nationals have faced challenges: finding talent, building a stadium and cultivating a fan base in a city dominated by two of America’s other favorite sports — politics and football.
Yet 2012 is looking like a banner year, with the team off to its best start ever.
But according to principal owner Robert Tanenbaum, a baseball team needs more than success on the field; it also needs to be entrenched in the community. For the Nationals, that means integrating with the local industry.
The CQ Roll Call Congressional Baseball Game has been played at Nationals Park since 2008. This year, the Nationals will transition from venue and sponsor to a member of the organizing committee in a move to strengthen its relationship with Capitol Hill.
“We as a team and as a family think that the Congressional game is one of the great institutions in town, and the Nationals will play as large a role as they can in fostering that tradition,” Tanenbaum said.
Last year, about 10,000 people attended the game. This year, Nationals management has more prominently advertised the relationship between the park and the Hill by promoting the event during home games.
Nationals’ technical crews will also lend a hand to ensure that the production values are of the caliber of a national sports broadcast.
Tanenbaum called the two traditions — Congressional baseball and Major League Baseball — a “natural partnership.” He said he hopes the increased visibility of the relationship will benefit the game, the Nats and the charities that the team sponsors.
Team managers Joe Barton (R-Texas) and Mike Doyle (D-Pa.) will serve as co-chairmen of an honorary Congressional advisory committee for the Nationals Dream Foundation’s Youth Baseball Academy in Washington, D.C.’s Ward 7. They will be joined by co-chairwoman Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.).
Gregory McCarthy, vice president of government and municipal affairs for the Nationals, said Congressional support “will mean a lot to the young people who play and learn at the academy and their families.”
Double Home Games
The Nationals have attempted to brand the team as a beacon of bipartisanship, extending discounts to all government employees. Members of Congress have begun to hold fundraisers in the stadium.
But it is difficult to be the “home team” to a demographic that calls D.C. “home” only when Congress is in session.
Tanenbaum speaks optimistically about Members’ divided loyalties.
“We’re proud that every game at Nationals Park is a double home game. There is always a visiting team that is from a Member’s district.”
That has caused some resentment in the past, particularly when Philadelphia Phillies fans flood the ballpark.
This season, the Nationals launched a campaign to “Take Back the Park,” offering early-sale tickets to residents of Virginia, Maryland and the District during the opening Phillies series.
The response to “Take Back the Park” was felt both at home and away. Many Phillies fans interpreted the move as a personal challenge to overflow the stadium.
“We ignited a rivalry that weekend,” said Andrew Feffer, the Nationals’ chief operating officer.
Winning helps, too.
Attendance was up 28.5 percent over the first 34 home games in 2011, the fourth highest percentage increase behind the Miami Marlins, who have a new stadium, the Detroit Tigers and the Toronto Blue Jays.
“In addition, our total attendance has now surpassed 1 million for the season, a mark that was achieved in nine fewer games than in 2011,” said Alexandra Schauffler, communications and community relations manager for the team.
Nationalizing the Nationals
When the Nationals turn to its market in government, the organization plays down rivalries and emphasize national pride.
“This is becoming the meeting place for Capitol Hill after a day’s work,” Feffer said. Nationals Park “is one of the few places in Washington where you see different parties join together.”
Tanenbaum said he thinks baseball has some lessons to offer Congress, and he sounds nostalgic when talking about what he considers the lost traditions of patriotism and politicking.
“In the older era, Members stayed in town more and knew each other better. In the modern era, opportunities to be with other Members in an informal setting have been contracted. We’re trying to fill that void,” he said. “We are perhaps one of the last bastions of civility, bipartisanship and pure American tradition.”