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Washington Nationals Strike Out On Strasburg Scratch

Pitcher Stephen Strasburg #37 of the Washington Nationals throws a pitch during the top of the third inning of his major league debut.
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Pitcher Stephen Strasburg #37 of the Washington Nationals throws a pitch during the top of the third inning of his major league debut.

On Tuesday night, 40,043 fans went through the turnstiles at Nationals Park expecting to see Stephen Strasburg pitch.

But minutes before the game, Strasburg just couldn’t get loose. As soon as word got back that Strasburg’s shoulder was stiff, it was clear that he wasn’t pitching.

The Nationals don’t have a legal responsibility to its fans to pay them back. As always, team officials cautioned that Strasburg was only scheduled to start. So the team didn’t do anything to appease the fans, perhaps not wanting to set a precedent for these types of events.

But if they actually had someone in the marketing department thinking on their toes, they might have turned this marketing disaster into a financial gain potentially worth hundreds of thousands of dollars for the team.

Here’s the reason why.

There are Nationals fans and there are Strasburg fans. We know this because, on average, about 17,000 more people show up for Strasburg starts. It’s the job of the Nationals marketing department to at least attempt to convert the people who just want to show up for the Strasburg games to people who wouldn’t mind sitting at the ballpark on an average night. You can’t do that if you don’t engage the Strasburg audience directly. You can’t do that if you say, sorry fans, you know it’s not our fault that Stephen couldn’t pitch.

You can do that by immediately starting to talk to the Strasburg crowd from the minute it becomes apparent he’s not pitching. The great thing about this is you can both make fans happy and make more money. I called two of the smartest minds in this field that I know to offer some suggestions for the Nationals, Bill Sutton and Tony Funderberg. What would they have done?

“I would have immediately given all fans two dollar food vouchers,” said Sutton, principal of Bill Sutton & Associates, a marketing and revenue enhancement consultancy firm. “As all teams know, nothing actually costs two dollars. I guarantee you their per cap concession spending would have gone through the roof.”

Let’s take those 40,000 fans and assume that half of them decide to buy food that they wouldn’t normally be eating. That’s a really conservative estimate considering the fact that more people would be willing to get up since they no longer would fear missing a Strasburg strikeout. I’ll say they’ll spend $5 more than they would have with the team giving back $2. That’s $60,000 in additional revenue made.

"It costs very little money to make things that make fans happy." -Pres., River City Rascals, Tony Funderburg

The concession idea works because the fan thinks they’re getting a deal when, in reality, there’s no way the team won’t make additional revenue on the voucher due to the low, odd value.

Sutton also said that the Nationals, who have plenty of tickets to sell, should have made a special ticket offer to fans in the crowd that night.

“They missed the boat by not saying something like, ‘We want to thank you for being here tonight and that’s why if you bring your ticket to the box office, we’ll give you $25 off any ticket plan for 2011,'” Sutton said.

Tony Funderburg, president of the minor league River City Rascals, might be the one of the most creative business minds in the game. Funderburg said if he were working for the Nationals, he would have offered fans the chance to redeem a special limited edition T-shirt or giveaway if they showed their ticket from the July 27th game at a future Nationals game.

“It costs very little money to make things that make fans happy,” Funderburg said.

My idea? Get Strasburg involved. On the way to the hospital to get his MRI, ask him if he’s OK to meet 50 fans on the field for a photo opportunity after the game. Strasburg, who I assume has a heart and understands the disappointment of the fans in the crowd, would likely do it. Get an intern to take the pictures and send them via e-mail. Zero cost to the Nationals.

“I at least hope that they are getting some sort survey data from the Strasburg nights,” said Sutton, who is also associate director of the DeVos Sport Business Management Program at the University of Central Florida. “They have to find out what people think of the experience and they definitely have to try to do things to get names. That name database is probably worth $50,000.”

Sure, the Nationals didn’t have to do anything. But the fact that a last place team, who will likely only get about five more Strasburg home starts, didn’t do anything is a bad mistake.

“When you have 40,000 people coming into your stadium, you have to find a way to give them a hug and the Nationals didn’t do it,” Sutton said. “The father and kid who dreamed all week long of seeing Strasburg pitch went home feeling deprived and it didn’t have to be that way even when it was clear Strasburg wasn’t taking the mound."

Questions? Comments? SportsBiz@cnbc.com

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