By: Steve Miller – Asst. Sports Editor
Five hours before the scheduled first pitch, rising high school senior Paul Fritschner stood outside the gates at Nationals Park in Washington, D.C. He was awaiting what Fritschner considers to be the greatest promotion a baseball team has ever put forth — the Jayson Werth garden gnome.
Werth, an outfielder for the Washington Nationals, is an outspoken character and a fan favorite. And in 2013, when his shaggy brown visage was photoshopped onto a common garden gnome by a fan, the Nationals marketing team sought out to create what became the most successful promotion in team history.
Fritschner was the first of many fans who turned out to Nationals Park hours before the game in order to get their hands on the newest baseball collectible. “I knew the lines were going to be long,” he said in an exclusive interview with Flyer News. “The Nationals had done a great job hyping it up on social media, and everyone was talking about it.”
Major League Baseball receives a lot of flak from the media and the sporting world for not captivating the younger audience, for not having an “it” factor that gets new generations of fans through the gates. What the Washington Nationals did last season, though, is indicative of a new trend that could save baseball, and rejuvenate the lore of “take me out to the ballgame.”
With social media and visible characters as the new peanuts and Cracker Jack, fans are responding and engaging in new ways with a sport that many consider to be losing its younger fan base.
The Nationals had posted pictures of the gnome all over their social media accounts in the weeks leading up to its release. And when the time finally came for the gates to open, the first 25,000 fans received their prizes. Although, over 40,000 people had purchased tickets to the game, filling up a stadium that rarely sells out. This game was on a Tuesday in the middle of summer. Forty-thousand people did not show up to watch the Nationals play. They showed up for the promotion.
The Nationals had struck gold. Free bobble heads, T-shirts and hats are all dandy to give out, but they’re not unique items in the eyes of baseball nation. Washington has found a way to draw a frenzy of fans with nothing more than a knick-knack.
MLB took notice, and this season teams are following suit. The New York Mets and the Los Angeles Dodgers are just two of the teams giving out player garden gnomes in 2015, according to the teams’ online promotional schedules.
In true competitive fashion, the Nationals are planning to one-up everybody again. On August 5, the same date of the gnome-craze, Washington is giving away a Jayson Werth Chia Pet, where growing grass will become Werth’s beard.
“Getting that Chia Pet is one of my top priorities because I had so much fun with the gnome last year,” Fritschner said.
A few things contributed to last year’s gnome-ageddon and this year’s excitement surrounding the Chia Pet. Chief among them is social media.
Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat are no strangers to baseball teams, that utilize the media for everything from releasing news to engaging with fans. The gnome idea was born, advertised and hyped all over social media. For a game that is attacked for its inability to appeal to short attention spans and action-seeking individuals, baseball’s social media presence and success is remarkable.
“I think the future of MLB lies with social media,” Fritschner said, “because we know that’s where the Nationals have gotten some of their ideas, and we’ve seen it transform the game of baseball.”
Second, the appeal of a character rather than a player attracts fans. “[Werth] just has this aura that says ‘I’m here to do me and win games and have fun’ and he couldn’t care less about being made fun of,” Fritschner said.
With 81 home games in a season, MLB teams are constantly coming up with new ways to attract fans. In Cincinnati, the Reds shoot off fireworks after every Friday home game, they give out free pizza when Reds pitchers strike out 11 batters in a game, and on top of that they have a normal slate of giveaways that includes bobble heads and T-shirts. Add all that up, and there’s always a reason other than baseball to go watch the Reds.
These promotions, especially when they captivate fans the way Werth’s garden gnome did, show us that the younger generation is not turned off by baseball, they’re just more excited when the sport is complemented by a new feature. Even if fans aren’t showing up to watch the game, as long as they keep streaming through the gates MLB will be happy.