D.C. Nationals coast on buzz as baseball bug bites inside Beltway

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David Cope says he'll know when the excitement of Major League Baseball's return to Washington, D.C., starts to wear off. Until then, his marketing strategy for the Washington Nationals is simple: Sit back and build off the buzz.

"There's no question that right now we're taking advantage of the hoopla of baseball coming back to Washington for the first time in three decades," said Mr. Cope, VP-sales and marketing for the Nationals, formerly the Montreal Expos franchise, before the team moved to D.C. for the 2005 season. "But eventually we're going to have to start building from the ground up."

The city had a franchise, the Senators, from 1901 to 1960, when the team bolted to Minnesota to become the Twins. MLB then gave the city an expansion franchise in 1961, also named the Senators, but the franchise again moved in 1972 to become the Texas Rangers.

Now for the first time in 33 years, the game's back-and so is baseball fever. Tickets for some Nationals' spring-training games in Viera, Fla., which normally sell for as little as $5 but no more than $18, have been selling for $80. On eBay, tickets to the team's home opener April 14 are fetching $1,250. More than 15,000 full-season tickets have been sold so far.

"Right now, they have a lot of good things going on that they can build off of," said sports-marketing expert Dean Bonham, president of the Denver-based Bonham Group. "For the most part, they're new to their city. And even those who remember the old Washington Senators are caught up in the return. Also, it's a new name, new logo, new colors, new merchandising ... all that alone helps build your marketing without you having to spend a dollar."


But Mr. Cope, a veteran of building a marketing plan from the ground up, as he did when the Cleveland Browns National Football League franchise moved to Baltimore and became the Ravens eight years ago, does have some roadblocks.

First, there is no ownership group. The club is being temporarily run by MLB and is owned by the 29 other franchises. Though Mr. Cope said that hasn't inhibited his budget, the temporary management structure has affected such things as setting ticket prices, which was delayed several times.

Also, the Nationals and MLB are still in negotiations with Peter Angelos, who owns the Baltimore Orioles franchise, over compensation. For years the Orioles enjoyed having a fan base in two major markets-Baltimore and, 45 miles down the road, Washington. Mr. Angelos opposed the move of the Montreal franchise to D.C. for obvious reasons, saying that when he bought the Orioles in 1993 for $173 million, it included territorial rights that stretched from Baltimore south to Charlotte, N.C.

So for now, while the negotiations continue, the Nationals do not have a TV partner and have not sold any broadcast rights, which for some teams is their most lucrative revenue source. The team has sold corporate partnerships, including outfield and rotating signage, with such big-name marketers as Anheuser-Busch, McDonald's, Chevrolet, Southwest Airlines, Geico, XM Satellite Radio and Ameriquest, among others.

But for the most part, true advertising has been on hold. Mr. Cope said the Nationals didn't even buy their first print ad until February. "We've done more public relations than anything," he said, referring to appearances by players and a team presence at a recent fitness expo in the D.C. area. "That and our Web site have proven to be a powerful blend of mediums. I think in part that's helped create the buzz."

Still, "we know the honeymoon is going to end," he added, signaling a start to traditional advertising. Mr. Cope said it would begin targeting the tourist market, as the Nationals make an appeal to the 20 million visitors-85% of whom visit the city between April 1 and September 30, the exact dates of the MLB season-who make Washington the fourth-largest tourist attraction in the country.

"And when we do that traditional advertising, I'll market it as though we're going to go 0-162," he said with a laugh. "I don't want to create any unrealistic expectations."

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