The loss of rookie pitching sensation Stephen Strasburg to injury will deal a devastating economic blow not only to the Washington Nationals but also to Major League Baseball, according to marketing experts.
"There is no way to diminish the loss of Stephen Strasburg," said Bobby Goldwater, a sports management professor at Georgetown University and the man who spearheaded the return of big-league ball to the nation's capital. "Certainly, from a business point of view, the Nationals as a team and arguably Major League Baseball generally lose a major attraction and that is unfortunate."
At 22, Strasburg has demonstrated how immediately valuable an elite draft choice can be. Experts said he has already paid for his $15.1 million bonus based solely on the marketing and attendance gains he produced both at home and on the road.
"When he shows up, people show up," said Fritz Polite, a sports management professor at the University of Tennessee who specializes in brand marketing. "You have bodies in seats when he pitches. It will impact the team no question. He does have a drawing, a following. He has a very positive brand value for their franchise right now."
Strasburg has a significant tear in his ulnar collateral ligament that probably will require reconstructive Tommy John surgery on his injured elbow, the Nationals announced Friday. General manager Mike Rizzo said an enhanced MRI taken a day earlier revealed the extent of the injury.
The pitcher will travel to the West Coast to see Dr. Lewis Yocum for a second opinion, ESPN.com reported. But Rizzo said he anticipates Strasburg will require surgery, ruling him out for 12 to 18 months.
The rookie has had two MRIs since he was removed from Saturday's game at Philadelphia. The initial diagnosis was a strained tendon in his right forearm. But the first scan raised enough questions for the team to order a more enhanced MRI.
"He's young so he'll probably bounce back maybe a little bit quicker than someone in their mid 30s," said Dr. Bradford Parsons, an orthopedic surgeon at New York's Mount Sinai Hospital who specializes in shoulder and elbow surgery. Parsons has not examined Strasburg. "He has a realistic chance of being back in one year."
Strasburg entered the big leagues with the kind of hype and fanfare that would intimidate most rookies. He more than lived up to the acclaim, striking out 14 batters in his big league debut in June with a deadly array 100-mph fastballs, changeups and curves.
The pitcher was a Sports Illustrated cover boy long before his first minor league game and a recent survey named him baseball's most marketable player under the age of 25. It is too early to speculate on what his absence means in terms of revenue for both the team and the league.
"The team clearly was building a strategy from a competitive point of view and from a business point of view that will need at least a short-term significant adjustment," Goldwater said. "The strategy of marketing him as an every-five-day attraction, whether at home or on the road, that certainly is a short-term setback."
Goldwater said the electricity surrounding Strasburg's first start in June far surpassed the excitement over the return of major league baseball to Washington, D.C. in 2005.
"It was as close to playoff baseball as Washington, D.C., has had in a long, long time," he said. "The energy, the excitement was terrific. Now it's just going to take some time to get it back."