The Washington Nationals won the 2019 World Series, and the city of Washington, D.C., thoroughly embraced the baseball team’s postseason breakthrough. The team looks drastically different in 2022, though, and attendance numbers to start the year haven’t impressed.
Only 9,621 people attended a recent Tuesday afternoon matchup with the Arizona Diamondbacks, the team’s smallest home crowd (excluding COVID-restricted crowds) since baseball came back to Washington in 2005. Through 14 home games, Washington has averaged 19,457 fans, which ranked 23rd among MLB teams as of Wednesday. The Nationals averaged at least 30,000 fans per home game each season from 2012-18.
“The Nationals don’t draw as many fans as they once did, and it’s not close,” Barry Svrluga wrote in a recent Washington Post column.
Svrluga blames more than just the team’s subpar play — they’re 9-16 as of Wednesday — for the lack of fan interest.
“The reasons for all the empty seats are legion,” Svrluga wrote. “The pandemic meant the Nationals had zero chance to capitalize — at the gate — on their World Series title. The performance of the 2021 team means almost all of the familiar faces are gone. Plus — and this is important — the uncertainty about when the season would start because of the lockout meant not only that single-game tickets went on sale late but fans had an open invitation not to be engaged with the sport at a time when they should have been gearing up for Opening Day. There was real damage done — and not just in Washington.”
Coupling the pandemic with a new, less impressive roster doesn’t help attendance figures. Aside from Juan Soto, the Washington Nationals lack big-name star power. The lockout certainly didn’t help attendance, and neither does the early spring weather, which isn’t always as enjoyable as warm summer days expected later this season. Ticket prices also factor into the equation, as some fans find prices objectionable for the quality of play.
This franchise has the worst luck. The real estate market crashes right after Nats Park opens. No attendance allowed after winning the World Series. The year after a championship is almost always a license to print money. The Nats missed ALL of it.
— Game 7 enthusiast (@HalfStreetHeart) April 24, 2022
While attendance is lacking, BetMGM’s presence at the stadium offers fans at least one reason to visit the ballpark. Whether it’s placing wagers in their seats or using the retail sportsbook just outside the centerfield gate that launched in late January, sports bettors have incentive to head to Nationals Park.
Can betting boost attendance?
The BetMGM Sportsbook at Nationals Park isn’t a massive establishment — its capacity is 187 people — and you can’t access the stadium from the sportsbook. You can, however, place mobile wagers on the BetMGM app while inside of Nats Park. It’s also easy to walk into the sportsbook, place a bet at a kiosk, and then enter the ballpark.
Being able to wager in any capacity using a reliable national brand like BetMGM is relevant in Washington, D.C., as the jurisdiction’s sports betting scene is a bit chaotic. Users aren’t allowed to wager on federal land, and they can only bet using the BetMGM app within a two-block radius of Nats Park. Bettors can use Caesars’ app within a two-block radius of Capital One Arena, and they can also wager at the Caesars retail sportsbook attached to the arena.
Elsewhere in the District, bettors can legally wager using GambetDC’s platforms, which include retail kiosks scattered throughout D.C. as well as online and mobile options. GambetDC is powered by the D.C. Lottery, and the betting platform has been widely criticized since its launch due to several shortcomings, including subpar odds and interface issues.
Given GambetDC’s woes, there’s motivation for local bettors to travel to Nationals Park. Could the betting options at Nats Park actually help boost attendance at home games? Well, it’s unlikely thousands of bettors flock to the sportsbook or stadium on game days just to place bets, but BetMGM’s D.C. performance and Nationals attendance will likely have a connected relationship for years to come.
When the Nationals are playing well and look the part of a postseason team, larger home crowds will likely lead to more bets being placed at the BetMGM retail location or on the app. That’s not exactly groundbreaking information, but it’s part of the financial risk and reward that comes with setting up a retail sportsbook at a professional sports venue. Caesars will cash in on the positive side of that scenario this weekend, as the NHL’s Washington Capitals host a home playoff game at Capital One Arena on Saturday.
“Anything that would drive attendance to the ballpark is certainly going to help us because it’s just a matter of location,” Johnny Grooms, BetMGM’s director of retail sportsbook operations, said. “If you have 1% of 20,000 people coming into your establishment as they walk by, well 1% of 40,000 is bigger than 1% of 20,000. All those days when they fill the ballpark up, we’re going to be a little busier.”
On the flipside, the added game-day enhancement of sports wagering gives fans another reason to attend games, even if the team sits outside the playoff picture. Grooms has seen fans walk into the sportsbook before first pitch, place bets on the game, and then head into the park.
“If a given pitcher is pitching on a given day, they have the ability to make a bet on if the guy is gonna have five or six strikeouts or if Juan Soto is going to hit a homer,” Grooms said. “It adds a different layer to the game.”
Juan Soto with a casual 409 foot bomb to straightaway center pic.twitter.com/OSu7z1T8v8
— Matt Weyrich (@ByMattWeyrich) April 30, 2022
Given the team’s on-field struggles, rooting for a prop bet to cash may increase fan engagement this summer. Even if the team loses, some fans may head home happy if Soto delivers a home run at plus odds.
Other teams to follow?
The Arizona Diamondbacks plan to open a Caesars Sportsbook at Chase Field at some point this year, although the official grand opening date has yet to be announced. Several of Arizona’s other professional sports franchises have relationships with sports betting companies, including the NBA’s Phoenix Suns and the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals.
BetMGM will open a retail sportsbook outside the Cardinals’ State Farm Stadium prior to the start of the 2022 NFL season, and the Suns currently have a FanDuel sportsbook lounge located inside the Footprint Center. Retail sportsbooks have a noteworthy footprint in Washington, D.C., as well.
Caesars’ location at Capital One Arena is a popular sports betting spot for fans attending home games of the NBA’s Washington Wizards and NHL’s Washington Capitals, and a FanDuel location is coming to Audi Field, home to MLS’ D.C. United. There’s even a retail sports betting presence at Grand Central, a popular bar in Adams Morgan.
“I do expect this will proliferate more and more, but just like anything it will get to the point of saturation,” Grooms said. “You don’t want to have six sportsbooks in a specific area where they’re so close to each other that you can’t really turn a profit.”
Professional teams are always looking for ways to best engage fans, and it’s no surprise to see organizations adding sportsbooks in or near their stadiums. For teams in Washington, D.C., those sportsbooks hold unique value due to GambetDC’s shortcomings.
“It’s a great experience having a book here in the ballpark,” Grooms said. “Looking forward to having a nice long summer of about 72, 73 more games of people coming in, having a bet, having a bite to eat, and then going to watch the game. Looking forward to seeing how the summer goes for us.”
Official tallies for handle, revenue, and other sports betting financial figures will be released monthly throughout the summer. BetMGM’s financial figures from April in the District have yet to be announced, but the company accepted just over 100,000 bets in D.C. in March.
While BetMGM can’t completely salvage dipping attendance figures for the Nationals, the betting operator’s presence gives fans something entertaining to do during home games. For Nats fans, any entertainment value seems much needed heading into this summer.