As team seeks play­off berth, fans stay home

At­ten­dance drop of 2,500 a game this sea­son is one of the big­gest in ma­jors

Baltimore Sun - - FRONT PAGE - By Childs Walker and Jeff Barker childs.walker@balt­ twit­ Bal­ti­more Sun re­porters Scott Dance, Kevin Rec­tor and Peter Schmuck con­trib­uted to this ar­ti­cle.

When the Ori­oles took the field to be­gin their most im­por­tant series of the sea­son — four games against the ri­val Bos­ton Red Sox that could de­ter­mine their play­off fate — they were greeted by row upon row of empty green seats at Cam­den Yards.

Mon­day’s crowd of 18,456 and Tues­day’s of 20,387 — which com­bined for less than the ball­park’s ca­pac­ity of 45,971— was only the lat­est data in a story that has puz­zled Bal­ti­more base­ball lovers all sea­son. The Ori­oles spent lib­er­ally in the off­sea­son and have ex­ceeded ex­pec­ta­tions on the field. But as they drive for a third play­off berth in five sea­sons, fans are not fill­ing Cam­den Yards.

The Ori­oles have suf­fered the fifth-largest at­ten­dance drop in Ma­jor League Base­ball, re­sid­ing near non­con­tenders such as the Min­nesota Twins and the Mil­wau­kee Brew­ers. Though MLB at­ten­dance is down slightly over­all from 2015, the drop of 2,602 fans per game in Bal­ti­more was more than 10 times the av­er­age de­cline go­ing into Wed­nes­day’s games. The Ori­oles av­er­aged 26,514 a game en­ter­ing Wed­nes­day.

“The fans’ im­pact at Cam­den Yards is un­be­liev­able. I think they know that. I think they un­der­stand that. The play­ers un­der­stand that,” cen­ter fielder Adam Jones said be­fore Wed­nes­day’s game. “Ob­vi­ously, this week and this last home­s­tand, this last 11 games, are ar­guably the most im­por­tant games of the sea­son. We’ve fought our tails off for 150 games to put our­selves into a unique sit­u­a­tion in Septem­ber. That’s what you say, you want to play im­por­tant Septem­ber base­ball, and part of Septem­ber base­ball, es­pe­cially if you’re in the East, is the fans.”

Ev­ery­one seems to have a dif­fer­ent the­ory as to why — in­creased ticket prices, op­pres­sive heat this sum­mer, fan com­pla­cency af­ter five years of win­ning and some peo­ple feel­ing un­easy about com­ing down­town in the wake of last year’s civil un­rest af­ter Fred­die Gray died.

The Ori­oles de­clined to dis­cuss the is­sue in de­tail. “We are look­ing for­ward to these fi­nal home games and hope to see Ori­oles fans out at the Yard to max­i­mize our home­field ad­van­tage as we bat­tle for a spot in the post­sea­son,” said Greg Bader, the club’s vice pres­i­dent of com­mu­ni­ca­tions.

But the empty seats have be­come an awk­ward talk­ing point at a time when the Ori­oles are largely thriv­ing on the field and by other mea­sures of fan in­ter­est.

For ex­am­ple, tele­vi­sion rat­ings for the team’s games on the MidAt­lantic Sports Net­work are among the best in the sport.

“There are great play­ers on the team and they are easy to like, too, so I feel bad for the guys that the crowds aren’t there to sup­port them in the fi­nal weeks of the sea­son,” said Julie Sax­en­meyer, a sea­son- ticket holder from Cock­eysville. “But I think the front of­fice and par­tic­u­larly the mar­ket­ing depart­ment need to look in­ward. In a per­fect world, would a team that’s been in or around first place for the en­tire sea­son need to mar­ket it­self to draw fans? Of course not, but this is the re­al­ity. Deal with the re­al­ity.”

The Ori­oles are part of a larger story as mu­se­ums and other down­town en­ter­tain­ment des­ti­na­tions strug­gled to re­build their au­di­ences af­ter Gray’s death.

“It’s no se­cret. There’s no ques­tion the un­rest has had a toll,” said Auburn Bell, an ad­junct pro­fes­sor of mar­ket­ing at Loy­ola Univer­sity Mary­land. “Oth­ers have seen a down­turn in at­ten­dance across the arts and cul­tural area.”

But of­fi­cials at the Mary­land Zoo and with the con­ven­tion arm of Visit Bal­ti­more said busi­ness has been healthy this year, so it’s not bleak ev­ery­where.

The Ori­oles were par­tic­u­larly af­fected last year by the un­rest af­ter Gray’s death, with fans barred from Cam­den Yards en­tirely for one game and or­dered not to leave the sta­dium for safety rea­sons dur­ing an­other. The team also had a home series moved to St. Pe­ters­burg, Fla., home of the Tampa Bay Rays. Be­cause the team typ­i­cally sells more than 60 per­cent of its tick­ets be­fore the sea­son, the ef­fect of the 2015 un­rest wouldn’t have fully man­i­fested it­self un­til this year.

The club’s nat­u­ral mar­ket is smaller than other teams’, with a base of about 3 mil­lion peo­ple if you in­clude out­ly­ing ar­eas such as Fred­er­ick and York, Pa. The Wash­ing­ton metropoli­tan area, which be­longed to the Ori­oles be­fore the Wash­ing­ton Na­tion­als be­gan play in 2005, is about twice as big. The Na­tion­als’ av­er­age at­ten­dance in 2016 is about 4,600 more than the Ori­oles’, but it has de­clined by about 1,500 a game com­pared to last sea­son.

Tourism of­fi­cials are also puz­zled by the Ori­oles’ at­ten­dance num­bers. The Down­town Part­ner­ship of Bal­ti­more has tried to help the team at­tract fans.

“The part­ner­ship has worked with the Ori­oles on ticket pack­ages of re­duced-price seats to down­town res­i­dents,” spokesman Michael Evitts said. “I’m dis­ap­pointed at how the num­bers have gone. I can’t say why. We had kind of a rainy spring. I feel like the Ori­oles are pulling out all the stops.”

The small crowds have damp­ened sales at Pick­les Pub, one of the down­town busi­nesses most di­rectly de­pen­dent on ball­park traf­fic.

“Ob­vi­ously, when they’re not sell­ing out the sta­dium, it’s go­ing to af­fect busi­ness here,” Pick­les man­ager Craig Ziegen­hein said. “As an Ori­oles fan my­self, it’s dis­ap­point­ing to see. It just doesn’t make sense to me.”

This is­sue would have been in­con­ceiv­able five years ago, when Ori­oles fans were starved for any hint of a pen­nant race af­ter 14 straight los­ing sea­sons.

They begged for home­grown stars, in­vest­ments in big-ticket free agents and a more sta­ble front of­fice.

And the Ori­oles have largely de­liv­ered since 2012, play­ing .500 or bet­ter base­ball each sea­son dur­ing that stretch un­der man­ager Buck Showal­ter and a core built around third base­man Manny Machado, Jones and first base­man Chris Davis.

They spent freely last win­ter to keep the ros­ter largely in­tact, in­creas­ing their pay­roll by about a third to al­most $150 mil­lion.

This year, they’re on track for an­other play­off ap­pear­ance and threat­en­ing a club record for home runs. Machado and closer Zach Brit­ton, both prod­ucts of the Ori­oles’ sys­tem, are can­di­dates for Most Valu­able Player and the Cy Young Award, re­spec­tively.

Yet fans say they’re not en­tirely sat­is­fied for rea­sons rang­ing from the cost of at­tend­ing games to the club’s in­abil­ity to build a top-notch start­ing ro­ta­tion.

Jeff Werner of Fall­ing Wa­ters, W.Va., said he still drives to Bal­ti­more for Ravens games but is less likely to do so for Ori­oles games, even though he has sup­ported them for more than 40 years.

“It’s not safe to go to games at night any longer,” he said. “Ori­oles ticket prices are high. Con­ces­sions are ex­tremely high for food and drink. No one can af­ford those prices.”

Af­ter a record-break­ing year of vi­o­lence in Bal­ti­more in 2015, when there were a per-capita record 344 homi­cides, this year is track­ing not far be­hind: Homi­cides are down slightly, but non­fa­tal shoot­ings and over­all vi­o­lent crime are up.

Shortly af­ter Davis signed a club-record $161 mil­lion deal, the Ori­oles an­nounced in­creased ticket prices for 2016 — an av­er­age rise of about $5 a game for both sea­son and in­di­vid­ual tick­ets.

The prices are still lower than the MLB av­er­age, but fan af­ter fan cited the cost in­crease in ex­plain­ing why they’re more likely to stay home and watch on tele­vi­sion.

“I can’t pin­point the ex­act rea- son, but bang for your buck could be one,” said Rich Gray, a life­long fan who lives in Somers Point, N.J., and has cut back on his trips to Cam­den Yards. “It seemed more of an ex­pe­ri­ence in years past. I have spent so much money on the Ori­oles in tick­ets, ho­tels, gas, pay­ing for MASN in coastal New Jer­sey and cloth­ing that I guess it was time to slow it down. … As a fan, you get dis­ap­pointed they spend money on Davis and get no pitch­ing.”

At­ten­dance in­creased steadily from 2012, when the Ori­oles made the play­offs for the first time in 15 years, through 2014, when they won their first Amer­i­can League East ti­tle in 17 years, be­fore fall­ing slightly last sea­son. But this year’s de­cline has sur­prised many.

“I’m sure peo­ple will try to pin this on last year’s un­rest in the city, but I think it goes be­yond that,” Sax­en­meyer said. “Cer­tainly you can’t dis­count the fact that there was a pretty steep in­crease in ticket prices. My sea­son ticket part­ners and I al­most didn’t re­new when the cost went up more than 20 per­cent. They did spend money on the team in the off­sea­son, so an in­crease was some­what jus­ti­fied, but it’s not like the higher pay­roll im­proved the team vastly.”

The Ori­oles reeled in a sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of 2015 sea­son-ticket buy­ers by mak­ing those sea­son plans a con­di­tion for pur­chas­ing 2014 play­off tick­ets. But some of those sea­son-plan hold­ers dropped off last off­sea­son when the Ori­oles waited longer than usual to send out re­newal state­ments and an­nounced the price in­crease.

The play­ers have no­ticed the empty seats. How could they not?

But they’ve been care­ful to praise the en­thu­si­asm of those who do come rather than lament those who do not.

“Yeah, it’s sad that we’re not sell­ing out. We’re not get­ting the crowds that we used to in the past,” Machado said. But “the peo­ple who are com­ing, they’re com­ing ev­ery day, and it’s awe­some to see them come out and sup­port us ev­ery day.”

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