How the Nationals Off-Field Programming Drives New Fans to the Ballpark

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Washington Nationals Bourbon
Photo Credit: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

The Washington Nationals are pouring plenty of whiskey to attract fans to Nationals Park.

Last week, the Nationals hosted “Bourbon and Baseball,” just one of several drinks-related pregame events to bring fans, new and old, to the ballpark. It was the second “Bourbon and Baseball” event, with the first coming last September. There will be two more similar events this season, “Scotch and Baseball” on July 22 and “Bubbles and Baseball” on September 28.

“It’s about looking at baseball in a different way,” says Jonathan Stahl, Washington Nationals vice president of ballpark operations and guest experience. “We have fans that come to the ballpark for the baseball atmosphere, but it’s not always the number one focus for their friends. It’s really about getting people with different interests out to the ballpark to try something new.”

Tickets included 12 tasting pours of whiskey prior to the game and baseline reserved seat. A special focus was placed on bringing in whiskies scarcely found at bars and restaurants. The event’s approximately 400 tickets sold out at $85 each.

The events are held within the Nationals Park conference center or weather permitting, outside.

“We really want to make sure it’s about the experience and they’re not waiting in lines for a long time,” Stahl says.

In April, USA Today reported overall MLB attendance in March-April was flat, with 12 teams welcoming fewer fans than a similar period last year. Despite the low attendance figures, MLB set record revenues in 2018, according to Forbes. The cause of that 4% drop in MLB attendance in 2018 is hard to pinpoint, but clubs like the Nationals are doing their best to keep fans interested during a lengthy slate of 81 home games.

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“We want to try to create experiences that bring our fans and new fans back to the ballpark over and over again,” Stahl says. “We also want to make sure the experience of the events are as great as the baseball game.”

The “Bourbon and Baseball” event was born out of a Nationals’ event last June, “Rosé All Gameday,” which turned out to be a learning experience for the franchise. This event was held in the stadium during a game, which Stahl said took away from the viewing experience a little too much.

The evolution and specialization of the food and beverage industry the past decade has left plenty of opportunities for integration within sports, especially when it comes to concessions. Stahl pointed toward the offerings at Nationals Park that allows fans from nearby Virginia and Maryland to try some well-reviewed D.C. restaurants at the game.

“You look at the beverage industry as a whole and how much it’s evolved the past decade, there’s just so many great local offerings,” Stahl says. “On the food front, we’ve been partnering with local restaurants since the ballpark opened and it’s allowed us to elevate the quality of food we have and allow fans to try the hot and trendy restaurants that might be inconvenient to them in everyday life.”

MLB has even capitalized on the growing love of local food with its MLB FoodFest, bringing together foods from all 30 teams in Los Angeles, New York and London.

Other teams across the country are heading toward the food world as well. The Triple-A Fresno Grizzlies hold Taco Truck Throwdown, which last year attracted more than 20,000 people over the two-day event, according to Team President Derek Franks. The Grizzlies started the event nine years ago and it has grown ever since. Currently, Taco Truck Throwdown starts the last day of a homestand, as they play as the Fresno Tacos, and it becomes a stand-alone event the second day.

“Taco Truck Throwdown is the biggest success for us sitting around talking about how to get people interested in coming to the ballpark and show in some cases, it’s creating an event where baseball is in the background,” Franks says. “A lot of our smaller successes are just mini versions of it.

“You watch people’s habits change and now people want interesting food, drinks and music. We’ve really had to tailor our promotions around those to make fun events.”

Minor League teams tend to be leaders in special events to help draw fans without the star power of MLB names.

“We’ve had a head start on having to get creative,” Franks says. “We’re starting to see Major League teams do more of what we’ve had to do all these years to keep fans interested because it’s a much different world.”

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Beyond beverages, the Nationals are hosting events like this weekend’s Marvel Super Hero Day, which will feature Thor’s Short Rib Hammer, a bone-in 2.5-pound short rib, Hulk Nachos, an Iron Man-wich, and a Captain Zimmerman bobblehead giveaway.

Staying the food realm and building on their Washington, D.C., home, the Nationals host an annual Taste of the World event, where embassy chefs are invited to cook up cuisine from their home country for a pre-game tasting by fans. The team also launched an augmented reality scavenger hunt with player integration and redeemable offers with the goal of getting fans to experience new parts of the stadium.

“Those are family-friendly environments and it’s a really fun thing,” Stahl said. “Add those all up and we’re just trying to find unique ways to reach out.”

Whether it’s sipping some pregame bourbon or noshing on a superhero-themed hunk of meat during the action, teams are working to keep fans in the stands. At the very least, the Nationals will pour a whiskey for them.