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Strasburg’s arrival translates into sellouts, TV ratings for Nats

Stephen Strasburg, who makes his major league debut in Washington on Tuesday night, is the proud owner of a 100-mph fastball and the richest contract ever signed by a rookie baseball player.

Stephen Strasburg, who makes his major league debut in Washington on Tuesday night, is the proud owner of a 100-mph fastball and the richest contract ever signed by a rookie baseball player.

How big is Washington Nationals rookie pitcher Stephen Strasburg?

He’s big enough to sell out Nationals Park days in advance of his scheduled major league debut Tuesday night.

The 100-mph-fastball pitcher is big enough to catapult ad sales — and rates — on the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network for his expected starts this month.

The 21-year-old phenom is even big enough to inspire 249-year-old Strasburg, Va. to rename itself (if only temporarily) Stephen Strasburg, Va.

Simply put, expectations have soared beyond Earth’s gravitational pull and the money is already flowing — all before Strasburg throws his first big league pitch.

No one knows if Strasburg’s on-the-field performance will live up to the hype, but the Nationals are already starting to reap the financial benefits after signing him to a $15.1 million contract — highest ever for a rookie — last August.

Tuesday night will be just the ninth sellout in Nationals Park’s three-year history. Not only will all 41,888 seats be filled, but the team also is offering an additional 2,000 standing-room-only tickets for $10. And for the first time in the team’s history, it’s selling suite seats individually, starting at $95 per person.

That’s a huge revenue boost for a team that averages roughly 17,000 fans Monday through Thursday. And it won’t end with Strasburg’s first start. The pitcher’s presence is expected to be an attendance boon for a club that drew just 1.8 million to the ballpark last year, the seventh-worst in major league baseball.

Surging attendance and revenue

“This is a half a million or more attendance bump for the year, without question,” said Marty Conway, director of business development for AOL and a former Orioles marketing director.

“Not only are they sold out Tuesday and for Strasburg’s next expected start, there was early speculation he would be pitching [last Friday’s game against the Cincinnati Reds],” Conway added, noting that game drew more than 33,000 to the ballpark — the team’s highest attendance this season since Opening Day.

And with the influx of a projected additional 20,000 fans for every Strasburg start, there comes more ancillary spending: concessions, merchandise sales, parking. Every revenue stream that flows to the Nats will show the effects of Strasburg fever, experts said.

“If he does well and comes close to meeting people’s high expectations, that will translate to next season in terms of selling more season ticket sales, and ad revenues and suite revenues will go up,” said Joe Foss, a financial consultant and former chief operating officer of the Baltimore Orioles.

Since the team announced the date of Strasburg’s major league debut, regional sports network MASN quickly sold out advertising space for that date at double the rate. Four additional games (mostly Strasburg’s expected starts) of the next 15 have also sold out, according to MASN spokesman Todd Webster.

“There’s a tremendous amount of demand in the marketplace to be associated with MASN,” Webster said.

That demand is also seen in the secondary market for tickets to Tuesday night’s game, which are selling for up to six times the original value. A seat behind the Nationals dugout, which normally sells for $75 is going for $250 to $500 per seat on Luxury seats behind home plate, normally $325, are selling for $500.

Making his mark in the minors

While overwhelming, the anticipation over Tuesday’s game is not surprising — Strasburg already has a proven track record in drawing attention.

Not only did MASN add most of his minor league starts to its broadcast schedule this year, but those games drew comparable or even higher ratings than the Nationals’ ratings during their 2009 season.

The San Diego native has also drawn national attention since the Nationals drafted him with the first pick in last year’s major league draft.  Sports giant ESPN has reported on his minor league starts this year and Tuesday’s game will also be shown nationally on the MLB Network.

In the minor leagues, Strasburg was almost a guarantee to double the attendance when he pitched. Officials from Strasburg’s Double-A Harrisburg (Penn.) Senators and Triple-A Syracuse (N.Y.) Chiefs said he had a marked impact on gate, concession and merchandise revenue. The officials declined to release exact figures, citing team policy.

The attention given Strasburg is reminiscent of more than a year ago when the Orioles called up then-rookie Matt Wieters, arguably the best player in the minors at the time. The Orioles drew nearly 43,000 for his debut, which came with only a few days’ notice.

But experts say Strasburg’s start — which was announced last week — far surpasses the Wieters hype.

“There’s nothing like a phenom pitcher,” said Conway. “It’s sort of baseball lore. The fact that he’s only available for certain home games … Wieters coming up was a thrill but now we’ve seen him so many times and plus now he’s only batting [.236]. But a 100-miles-per-hour fastball — everybody wants to see that.”

Wieters’ struggles in his second year (and the Orioles’ struggles) offer a glimpse of how too much hype can be damaging when expectations aren’t met. So, while Strasburg has already had a financial impact on the team, whether it will last into the following season depends on his performance.

And in the baseball world a young pitcher — no matter how good he performs in the minors — is not something executives want to bet the team’s financial future on.

“My judgment is the ownership and business side of the Nationals hopes he becomes everything people are expecting, but I don’t think they realistically expect it,” said Foss. “There’s just too many things that can happen through a major league baseball player’s career where the hype doesn’t match the expectation.”

A rebranding opportunity

But one thing the team’s marketing department can run with is the opportunity to rebrand the team in front of a national audience. Roughly 200 media credentials have been processed for Tuesday’s game and every genre from the sports world to human interest writers will be represented in the Nationals press box.

The Nationals drew attention in 2005 when the team arrived in Washington from Montreal, returning major league baseball to the nation’s capital after 34 years. The team again was in the spotlight in 2008 when Nationals Park opened, then heralded as on the forefront of baseball park designs and a catalyst for development in southeast Washington.

But without success on the field (the team has had two straight 100-loss seasons), the Nats have largely been the butt of jokes and subject to criticism from local sports media. Although not a new franchise, the Nationals are in a new city under new ownership and have the perception of being a new team with a relatively blank slate, experts said.

Mark Westerman, a former Fila marketing executive and founder of West33 Consulting in Baltimore, said the Nationals should use the exposure coming their way to highlight baseball history in Washington or showcase the ballpark experience.

“The Nationals have to take advantage of the hype and momentum that comes with [Strasburg] but at the same time they have to tie it back to the entire team and sport of baseball, which lends itself to more revenue-generating opportunities,” Westerman said.

Successfully rebranding the team depends upon incorporating Strasburg — not relying on him.

“They’re one ligament tear away from being irrelevant,” he said. “Relying on one athlete in any sport as a marketer or advertiser is walking on thin ice.”