July-August 2013 | Hometown

Mr. Natitude

A COO goes to bat for the home team

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Getting a nasty letter from a U.S. senator might upset some people. Andy Feffer keeps it framed on his wall.

Feffer is the chief operating officer for the Washington Nationals, which means he’s in charge of all their non-baseball business—promoting, marketing, merchandising.

Last year he picked a fight with fans of the Philadelphia Phillies, who often pack the stands and drown out the locals here when their team comes to town. Starting in February, Feffer mounted a campaign to “take back the park,” and decreed that only fans with Washington-area credit cards could buy advance tickets for a big series with the Phillies that May.

“Forget you, Philly,” he taunted in The Washington Post. “This is our park, this is our town, these are our fans, and it’s our time right now.”

Philly fans lunged at Feffer’s bait. Talk radio and social media exploded with indignation. Sen. Bob Casey, a Pennsylvania Democrat, penned a huffy missive, urging Feffer to rescind “this unprecedented policy [that] solely and unfairly targets Phillies fans.”

More than 100,000 fans poured into Nats stadium for the three-game series after that, and when I suggest that Feffer deliberately provoked the outcry to boost attendance and attention, he can’t hide a mischievous smile.

“The idea,” he confesses, “was to create a natural rivalry with the best team in baseball at the time, two and a half hours up [Interstate] 95, and get our fans invested and show what this place can be.”

That’s Feffer’s job—to generate hype, buzz, chatter. His favorite phrase is “fan engagement,” and he coined the slogan “Natitude” to express that idea. “It was inspired by our players,” he says of the term. “This is a young team with a kind of raw energy. We’re brash, a little bit in your face, with a kind of hip edge.”

At 48, Feffer is more than twice the age of Bryce Harper, the 20-year-old star slugger who embodies “Natitude” on the field. But in his world, off the field, Feffer is just as “brash” and “in your face.” Like Harper, he’s always hustling and looking for a “hip edge.” When the Nats come to bat, each player’s Twitter handle is displayed on the scoreboard next to his batting average.

This year the team was also the first in the nation to import a technology that’s common in Europe, replacing paper tickets for their best customers with computerized cards that resemble E-ZPasses.

But baseball is still baseball. All the modern twists and tweets promote a game that’s rooted in timeless tradition. And Feffer understands tradition. His grandfather was a diplomat and his late dad, Jerry, a partner in the powerhouse law firm of Williams & Connolly, grew up in Chevy Chase as an “avid Senators fan.”

Today Feffer and his family live on Thornapple Street, right near Brookville Market and only a few blocks from his father’s childhood home. “My son and my daughter play in the same playground my father did,” he says.

Feffer played baseball as a kid, but tennis was his real sport, and after the University of Virginia he spent a year or two on the equivalent of a “minor league” pro circuit, “not too successfully,” he admits. “If I was going to do anything in sports it would obviously have to be in the business of sports, certainly not as a player.”

After he earned a business degree from Georgetown, a series of jobs followed—in baseball with the Baltimore Orioles, in basketball with the Charlotte Bobcats, in football with the NFL Players Association.

When Feffer finally joined the Nats in 2010, he faced a difficult challenge: “Washington didn’t have baseball for 30 years, so a whole generation of kids grew up here without it.”

That lost generation watched the Orioles or played lacrosse, but lacked the experience of youngsters in cities like Chicago and Boston and St. Louis, where rooting for the hometown team and attending games with the family is a “rite of passage,” Feffer says.

So how do you create the sort of loyalty and enthusiasm that Cubs and Cards and Red Sox fans imbibe with their baby formula? Building a good team on the field helps, but as Feffer notes, “the notion that just winning alone brings attendance and creates fans just isn’t the case.”

Feffer understands that the Washington area is changing. Its reputation as a “transient town” that turns over after every presidential election is increasingly outdated. Young families are moving here and “staying way beyond their political tenure,” building lives in places like Montgomery County. “You’re seeing a greater sense of community among people who stay here,” he says.

Sports loyalties are critical to nurturing that sense of community. But the Washington area has a special problem, because it’s split among three geographical jurisdictions and doesn’t have a single state university like Arkansas or Alabama to focus on.

Professional teams fill that void. When we moved to Bethesda almost 36 years ago, my kids connected to their new home in part by wearing Redskins gear. Today, my grandsons favor red caps and T-shirts emblazoned with the distinctive curly W. They’re growing up as card-carrying citizens of Nats Nation.

Community is not just about cities, however—it’s also about neighborhoods. It’s about Little Leagues as well as big leagues. It’s about folding chairs on a sideline, not just box seats in a stadium. Feffer’s 10-year-old son, Jake, plays on a travel team sponsored by Bethesda-Chevy Chase Baseball, and one weekend day early in the season, he was playing a doubleheader, one game in the morning, the other in late afternoon. Dad made it to both, while sandwiching a Nats home game in the middle.

“I ended up watching about eight hours of baseball,” Feffer says. “It was a great day. It doesn’t get any better.”

Steve Roberts is writing a new book about immigrant athletes. Send ideas for future columns to sroberts@gwu.edu.