Harper may have to wait for marketing hits

Bryce Harper burst onto the scene in Washington, D.C., batting .300 in his first nine games as a major leaguer, with six doubles and three RBIs. So far, he’s everything Nationals fans hoped he would be. Living up to those high expectations on a team tied for the division lead should make him a marketer’s dream … one day.

“Because baseball is such a regional sport, it’s difficult to become a national household name without postseason exposure and World Series rings,” said Bob Dorfman, executive vice president and executive creative director at Baker Street Advertising. “It doesn’t happen overnight -- even when you’re the game’s biggest phenom.”

That being said, Dorfman sees a lot of potential for Harper, who does have an endorsement deal with Under Armour. “The league certainly needs a new star to fill Derek Jeter’s shoes as the game’s No. 1 pitchman, and Harper has all the tools to do it: youth, talent, looks, charisma and interesting hair.”

However, Dorfman says being in the New York media spotlight and having numerous opportunities to play into October helped propel Jeter into baseball’s poster boy.

“Harper has Washington, D.C., a football town first, without an MLB club for so long that most of its baseball fans have turned to the [Baltimore] Orioles and the allure of Camden Yards,” Dorfman said. “The lack of any Nationals’ attendance boost from Harper, Stephen Strasburg and being in first place seems to bear this out.”

Harper’s home debut in Washington last week drew 22,675 fans to the 41,000-seat Nationals Park. The following night, Harper had three hits in the Nationals' win over Arizona, which only 16,274 fans saw. Although attendance that evening was believed to be affected by the Washington Capitals hosting a playoff game just down the street, the Nationals have struggled with attendance ever since Nationals Park opened.

The Nationals have ranked 19th, 24th, 23rd and 20th in attendance since 2008. The team ranks 18th this season, despite two young players many thought would energize the fan base: Harper and Strasburg.

The pair played together for the first time at home last Friday to a crowd of 34,377, one of the largest of the season. In fact, last weekend’s three-game series against the Phillies drew three of the five largest crowds this season. The average for the series was 35,644, a huge improvement over the 23,517 average for the rest of the season. Phillies games at Nationals Park have sold well in recent years, particularly to Philadelphia fans.

StubHub saw an initial surge in purchases from Pennsylvania and New Jersey for Saturday’s game, but it looks like the Harper/Strasburg debut, along with the Nationals’ division-leading record, convinced Nationals fans to purchase last-minute tickets.

For Friday’s game, 71 percent of purchasers on StubHub were from Maryland, Virginia or D.C. On Saturday that number was 59 percent and on Sunday it was 68 percent.

It’s going to take more of that from Nationals fans to boost Harper’s national marketability.

Doug Shabelman, president of Burns Entertainment and Sports Marketing, said: “It's a tough economy and while a lot of teams have been hurt by the lack of attendance, winning and exciting players will turn things around. Bryce is still in a bit of a ‘wait and see’ mode from the fans.”

When it comes to marketing, there is a recipe for success for Harper, according to Dorfman: “If the winning keeps up, Harper continues to excel and the Nationals make the playoffs, expect Madison Avenue to come running.”