Nationals Park review: For this, you spent $686m?

Part of my travels last week involved a stop at the Washington Nationals‘ eponymous stadium on Saturday, for the second half (or more like second 60%) of a twi-night doubleheader against the Pirates. It was my first visit to Nationals Park, and my verdict is…

Meh. The D.C. stadium bears more than a passing resemblance to its HOK/Populous brethren Citi Field and Citizens Bank Park — stacks of club seats and restaurants behind home plate, overpriced shopping concourse in the outfield (complete with Blue Smoke and Shake Shack, just like in Queens), kids’ play area — only without even those parks’ moderate charms. The design is supposedly meant to evoke the glass-and-stone aesthetic of Washington’s monuments, but when you replace actual granite with white-painted steel and cinderblocks, you just get drab.

The biggest problem, though, isn’t the paint job but the grandstand design. Here’s a photo from the upper deck down the first base line, which, being set lower than the behind-the-plate upper deck because there are no club seats forcing it skyward, should provide a decent view:

I was surprised to find myself lower vertically, but horizontally somewhere in Northern Virginia. The problem is in that lower deck, which you can see extends for something like 40 rows back before you get to the base of the upper levels. And because the upper decks have no overhang — apparently somebody thought that no one in D.C. in the summer would ever want to be in the shade — they’re set back farther from the action than Stephen Strasburg is right now. (Of course, I would have expected this if I’d read my own blog posts.)

Nationals Park isn’t an awful place to see a game: We ended up moving down to empty field-level seats along the left field line (ushers were thankfully far and few between), which only involved circumnavigating a handful of dead-end ramps and obtruding stadium clubs, and a fine time was had by all. Having been to RFK Stadium previously for a Nats game, however, I have a hard time seeing this as a big upgrade in terms of fan experience — let alone $686 million worth of upgrade.

And what of the much-hyped neighborhood redevelopment that was supposed to burst forth as a result of the new stadium? Well, right now it looks like this:

If you go to Harrison, New Jersey, you can see similar banners adorning similar chain-link fences outside the Red Bull New York soccer arena there. If nothing else, new stadiums are doing wonders for the Potemkin village rendering industry.


21 comments on “Nationals Park review: For this, you spent $686m?

  1. Compared to the $515 million that the Marlins are spending, it does seem like we didn’t get our money’s worth. But I think the costs of building in an urban area that required a lot more engineering for the foundation and removal of contaminated soil bid up the costs here, as did the fact it was built at the time of the peak of the commodities boom in construction.
    Agree about the lack of a shade overhang, but they were overbudget from the start. Maybe the Lerners will spring for it one day. Maybe not.

    I think the stadium is fairly attractive from the outside, especially at night when lit.

    I find the seating views quite excellent compared to RFK, which despite its retro charms, was an uncomfortable heat pit in the summer (zero air circulation).

    The concessions are generally bleh but compared to OPACY, its a better experience which is the bar for most Nats fans.

  2. I wasn’t referring to the lack of a roof to cast shade on the upper decks (there is a teeny one, not that it helped much on Saturday), but rather that the upper decks aren’t cantilevered over the lower one at all. This would bring half the seats in the park closer to the action, and the only cost would be that it’d put the back rows of the field level in shade, which in my book would be a win-win. Too late to do anything about that now, though.

  3. Neil, your review of Nationals Park is pretty much in line with every other review I’ve read of the place. Of all the new parks it is by far the most underwhelming as it amounts to not much more than a hodgepodge reinterpretation of a “modern” ballpark from the 80’s or early 90’s than the better “retro” parks like AT&T Park or “retro modern” style parks like PETCO Park. Which frankly isn’t surprising given Nationals Park’s convoluted genesis and the fact the project was started under the tenure of MLB as the team’s owner.

  4. the “marlins” are kicking in a lot less than $515M into the florida version of the “big owe”.
    with only renderings of buildings the trojan horse analogy comes to mind. the franchise is taken care of and the neighborhood?
    eh, we’ll get to it some time.
    just look at st. louie’s “ballpark village”.
    oh, that’s right – you can’t see that either.
    beware of sports franchises bearing “gifts”…

  5. Hey at least Miami is getting a hell of alot more stadium for $100 million less than Washington did. Not only is Nationals Park ho hum and one of if not the worst of the post Camden Yards stadiums, it was also one of the priciest.

  6. Miami will be cheaper, definitely; as for better, we’ll see. Much as I love Red Grooms sculptures, I’m getting the feeling the Marlins stadium has about a 25% chance of being brilliantly loopy and a 75% chance of just sucking.

  7. I went to the stadium two years ago and I thought the big screen was the best I’ve seen. The rest of it, meh.

  8. I went in May for the first time and had the same impression. Nice sightlines, decent ticket prices (I got mine on Groupon), plenty of available seats so you can move closer to the action, but the place is completely forgettable. Also, the concessions prices were ridiculous — got a wimpy, flimsy grilled chicken sandwich and a soda for over $13!

    The worst part — I went to Nationals Stadium the day AFTER I went to Camden Yards , which is a cathedral. Nationals ballpark looks completely pedestrian by comparison. And Baltimore had better food choices, although Boog’s sandwiches aren’t as great as advertised (pretty good, but not great.)

  9. The fact that you can get tickets to this park on Groupon says everything about how well it’s going over with the public. Isn’t this the time period when the team should be getting amplified attendance with so many people wanting to try it out because of its newness?

    I still find it sadly funny that so many teams are still marketing the sports arena district in the States when its clear that the spinoffs of a revitalized neighborhood won’t be enjoyed for at least twenty years at best right now if ever at all.

  10. Well to be fair to the Nationals they had two additional hamstrings besides their bad stadium design that other teams didn’t tend to have. First they moved into an area that had a large number of transient individuals who are fans of other teams in addition to most baseball fans in the area who weren’t transient already being fans of the Orioles. Second they already got their “newness” bump by just showing up and playing during their first years at RFK.

  11. Any promotional material explaining how hundreds of millions of dollars can spur revitalization around a subsidized stadium should also include an analysis of what sort of revitalization could be not only ‘spurred’ but completed by spending the same amount on the revitalization itself. The whole point of the multiplication effect is that the multiplier must be greater than 1. All too often it is a miniscule fraction of the subsidy employed.

    I am not against limited public funding for facilities which do have a ‘public’ component, but Nats park is a prime example of what not to do… as is Yankee stadium II/III.

  12. Dan;

    Do you mean that MLB erred in relocating a team to Washington (an area already served by the Orioles)?

    If so, where else do you believe they should have gone?

  13. No not at all. I don’t think there was any better place to put them at the time. But at the same time given the situation in Washington I think it was unrealistic for anyone to assume then or now that the Nationals should have had the often cited “bump” in attendance that seems to accompany many of the new stadiums built in the last 18 years (be it a long term or short term bump). The situations that allowed both long and short term bumps just didn’t exist in DC to begin with due to the existence of another team (and largely transient population), the newness factor being almost used up by the time Nationals Park opening due to the team being a “new” team for 3 years already at that point, and the recession hitting almost immediately after the stadium opening. And that’s before we even get to the stadium design being of a less than stellar design.

  14. Neil, I agree that cantilevered decks makes the experience better for the upper deck people, but I wouldn’t call it a win-win for the people in the lower deck. Target Field has the cantilevered decks. While those back rows have plenty of shade, which is nice on a hot day, they also have obstructed views. Those seats have zero view of the scoreboard. You also lose sight of the ball when it is hit in the air. They are not worth the price of a lower deck seat.

    I enjoyed my trip to Nationals Park. I agree, there is nothing that makes it stand out, like some of the other parks. But it is a nice place to catch a game, even in the upper deck, where I sat.

    As for the lack of development around the stadium, I think it is a little premature to rip on that. With the economy still bad and banks holding firmly on to their money, its hard for developers to get projects like that off the ground. Now if it is still like that in 10 years, then we can talk.

  15. Neil, I agree that cantilevered decks makes the experience better for the upper deck people, but I wouldn’t call it a win-win for the people in the lower deck. Target Field has the cantilevered decks. While those back rows have plenty of shade, which is nice on a hot day, they also have obstructed views. Those seats have zero view of the scoreboard. You also lose sight of the ball when it is hit in the air. They are not worth the price of a lower deck seat.

    I enjoyed my trip to Nationals Park. I agree, there is nothing that makes it stand out, like some of the other parks. But it is a nice place to catch a game, even in the upper deck, where I sat.

    As for the lack of development around the stadium, I think it is a little premature to rip on that. With the economy still bad and banks holding firmly on to their money, its hard for developers to get projects like that off the ground. Now if it is still like that in 10 years, then we can talk.

  16. Neil,

    You’re making me wistful for ol’ County Stadium. I like Miller Park for the roof, but in hindsight having the shade and the upper tank closer to the field is worth the obstructed views.

  17. Ben (not Miller): It’s a matter of taste, to some degree. My favorite seats at Yankee Stadium were the back of the lower deck — I’d gladly trade views of flyballs (I watch the fielder anyway) and the scoreboard (there are ubiquitous flat-screen TVs for that now) for shade and a more compact feel to the stadium. And, of course, even if you prefer the opposite, it’s a matter of moving like 20,000 seats farther from the field just to preserve sky for maybe 4,000 lower-deck fans.

    And I loved County Stadium, on my one and old visit. I thought it was Wrigley without the ivy, seriously.

  18. County Stadium really showed how a team can affect the perception of it’s stadium, especially in contrast to Wrigley Field. The Brewers had so much trouble drawing but starting at least as far back as the late 80’s all you’d read about in the papers was how the ballpark stinks. It is hard to argue with the success of Miller Park, though. Unless you’re stuck in that mile high upper tank, of course.

  19. I can’t speak to the finances behind building Nationals Park, but as a fan I really love this stadium. I don’t think there is a bad seat in the house. My only complaint is that there isn’t a “Pickles” across the street selling $1 beers.

  20. I was just at Nat’s park, my 10th park in the last 6 weeks, I would rank it 10th. It was in a total ZERO of a location. Their employees, specifically ticket operations set up was disgraceful, only a handful of ticket windows, I actually had to wait 10 min to buy a Nat’s ticket and it was the 3rd inning!

    The woman I purchased my ticket from was incredibly rude.

    The exterior of the park was sterile and had nothing distinctive, completely generic.

    The 200 level concourse down the left field line was narrow, cramped, dingy with just 1 concession area which was also cramped. Here the park felt like it was 40 years old.

    The points about the upper deck being recessed way back are correct, that is very odd….front row level 200 300 or 400 is a mile from fair territory. For what?

    The only good quality was the 2 bars set up in the outfield. That was nice and well done. Blah, Danny Meyer restaurants. Sheeple.

    Prices for food are indeed way off. One factor that has to be mentioned is the mere fact this business ops group is all “new”. Meaning, how many of them really followed the team down from Montreal? I bet few.

    You visit a place like Nat’s park and you wonder how pro sports gets away with getting public money like they do. Like they couldn’t get a bank to loan them the money considering the incredible cash flows these teams have.

  21. I was a former vendor at County, it was very underrated. Built in the early 50s, it felt older, as if it was a 1950s version of a retro park. It had a great seating bowl. First stadium originally built with lights.

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