From one season-ticket holder's perspective: Why I think Orioles’ attendance is down - BaltimoreBaseball.com

Steve Cockey

From one season-ticket holder’s perspective: Why I think Orioles’ attendance is down

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Photo credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

First of all, let’s dispense with the theory that Orioles fans aren’t interested in this year’s team. Despite outcries from fans and media alike concerning poor home attendance numbers over the past few weeks, that simply isn’t true. The O’s had the third-highest local television ratings of the 30 teams through the All-Star break, a clear sign that Birdland is keen on the 2016 O’s and well-aware that they’ve been in playoff position for most of the season.

And there’s plenty of reason to believe that TV itself — the fact that every game is televised locally on MASN or for out-of-market fans via MLB.TV — could be a significant reason for declining ticket sales. Many fans who pay extra for a cable package that includes MASN may feel like they’re already paying to watch the Orioles, whether they come to the ballpark or not. And the comfort of one’s “man cave” and flatscreen are increasingly difficult to compete with, even for a jewel of a ballpark like Camden Yards.

But television aside, it’s obvious fan interest isn’t translating into ticket sales, and that’s certainly a concern. Is the fanbase at fault? Even with higher prices this season, should we blame the consumer? Or has the organization, its players, and marketing staff failed to connect with the community?

The only thing absolutely clear to me is that no single factor has caused this attendance decline. It’s a complex issue with a number of elements at play. Here are some of the major contributors, as I see them.

Season ticket sales appear to have decreased

When each baseball season starts, I always pay close attention to the second and third home games directly following Opening Day. These are typically some of the lowest-attended games of the year, and in my mind, an interesting indicator of the season-ticket base. The weather is often bad enough to deter any walk-up, so it’s reasonable to think that what’s left at these games is mostly season-ticket holders.

After the usual Opening Day sellout this April, here were the attendance numbers for the following two home games: 12,622 and 11,412. A year ago, the lowest-attended home game all season – besides the “no fans” riot contest and the “home” games played in Tampa Bay, of course – drew 15,963. The Orioles don’t announce the number of season-ticket holders each year, but it would certainly appear the club was down a few thousand from the previous season. After all, their average attendance to-date in 2016 (26,632) is 2,742 fewer per game than the year before.

The Washington Nationals

When talking about attendance in Baltimore, it’d be unfair not to mention the team just 40 miles down the road. A mid-atlantic market that the O’s used to have to themselves is now split with the Nationals, who are in their 12th season. And they’ve been good too, finishing with at least 83 wins in each of the last four seasons while leading the NL East this year. Have the Nats overtaken a portion of the Orioles’ fanbase? Are O’s fans living closer to D.C. content with seeing their team once or twice a year at Nats Park rather than traveling to Baltimore? One thing is for sure: Max Scherzer certainly noticed plenty of them in late August.

The price increase

It’s probably not news to you that the Orioles increased ticket prices by an average of 20 percent for this season. It was just the third time in 12 years that the team increased prices, but it did come shortly after a smaller 5 percent hike before 2014.

We already know that year-over-year season ticket sales appear to have declined. The question is, how much did this rise in prices contribute in 2016?

After the Orioles’ exciting 2014 division championship and playoff run into the ALCS, the team decided not to increase ticket prices. And, not surprisingly, season ticket sales jumped. Orioles vice president of communications and marketing Greg Bader told The Baltimore Sun in March, 2015:

“Advancing to the ALCS certainly assisted in driving our season plan member base higher,” he said. “We also believe the decision not to raise ticket prices has also led to some good season ticket numbers.”

So, a division title and ALCS appearance, coupled with flat ticket prices, led to increased season-ticket sales. If that’s the case, it would seem reasonable to me that a 20 percent average price increase following a .500 finish – the team’s worst since 2011 – has contributed to the reverse.

Unfortunate weather

Bad luck when it comes to weather has absolutely been at play when considering the O’s attendance woes this season. Far and away, the team’s best months came from April through June, with a 47-31 combined record. It just so happens that late April through early May saw a near-record 15 consecutive days of rainfall in Charm City. Once summer began in June, Baltimore has seen some of the worst sustained heat in decades. Add in a dramatic drop-off in performance in July and August (the Orioles have been below .500 both months), and it appears the baseball and weather gods didn’t align in 2016. 

Discontinued promotions and discounts

In addition to the price hike, multiple ticket promotions, plans and discounts from years past were discontinued in 2016. Ollie’s Bargain Night – which provided $10 upper reserve seats for every Tuesday night home game – was one of them. Tickets to Tuesday’s game against Toronto started at $15 (a 50 percent increase over the Ollie’s price) and rose to more than $18 each if purchased online (plus a $4 per order fee).

Another was the Birdland Summer Six Pack, which as early as last year was a heavily-promoted multi-game discount option:

And other consistent weekday giveaways, such as T-shirt Thursdays, were also scaled back. I can’t answer why these promotions weren’t in place for 2016. Regardless of their effectiveness in years past, the elimination of offers like these provides poor optics for the team, especially in conjunction with raised prices. Why give the perception that long-standing discount options to visit Camden Yards are being reduced? People like getting a bargain. Even if they don’t utilize it often, at least they know the option is there. Tickets to a major league game are expensive, and plenty may rely on such promotions to stretch their entertainment dollars. Taking away a 20 percent discount opportunity while simultaneously raising prices may have hiked prices for some fans much more than I’d realized.

Poor communication and marketing to fans

When I received word from the Orioles on Feb. 9 announcing the price hike and that my season plan renewal was available online, the email began like this:

“In just a few days, pitchers and catchers will report to Sarasota, and the baseball season will be officially underway.”

If the season were so close, shouldn’t I have known long before that my plan would be increasing by hundreds of dollars? I renewed, but it’s reasonable to think that the late notice left many fans scrambling when the cost was higher than they’d budgeted.

How about outreach and marketing to the fanbase? Well if Dan Connolly’s piece from Tuesday is any indicator, the O’s may be lacking in those areas as well. Dan pointed out that the previously-scorned, walk-up ticket fee had been abolished years ago, yet he and many others had no idea. Are O’s fans even aware that they can bring food and non-alcoholic beverages into the stadium for all games? If not, perhaps the organization is simply not doing enough to get the right messages to its fan base.

The safety issue

It’s obviously difficult to quantify what bearing last year’s unrest in Baltimore has had on Orioles’ ticket sales. But after personally hearing Marylanders from surrounding counties say that they don’t often come into the city anymore, I think it’s fair to say that a meaningful degree of impact is more than plausible. Downtown businesses were still reporting 20-30 percent declines as late as October, and many analysts feared that the economic impact could linger for years, if not decades.

Failures to capture momentum

Twice in the last five years, I thought the Orioles’ organization had prime opportunities to build goodwill with fans and momentum both on the field and in the community. The first was after the 2012 season: A most-improbable, 93-win, wild-card-game-winning, one-run-victory-induced campaign that directly followed 14 consecutive losing seasons. Its surprising nature began to re-capture enthusiasm for baseball in Baltimore. So much so that, in my mind anyway, the offseason that followed was a critical time to continue improving and rebuilding fan trust. The team’s most impactful moves that winter were:

November 2, 2012: Selected Alexi Casilla off waivers from the Minnesota Twins
November 28, 2012: Purchased Danny Valencia from the Boston Red Sox
December 6, 2012: Drafted T.J. McFarland from the Cleveland Indians in the 2012 rule 5 draft
December 13, 2012: Re-signed Nate McLouth as a free agent to a one-year, $2 million deal

The Orioles missed the playoffs in 2013, finishing with 85 wins and tied for third place in the AL East.

Like 2012, the 2014 season was similarly exciting and successful, capping with an ALDS sweep of the Detroit Tigers, and a Delmon Young-inspired comeback in game two of the series that is one of the most memorable baseball moments I’ve witnessed. And, once again, I felt that a strong offseason was crucial for continuing to build on that success, both with fans and in the standings. Here’s what followed:

December 3, 2014: Nick Markakis left via free agency to the Atlanta Braves
December 4, 2014: Nelson Cruz left via free agency to the Seattle Mariners
December 5, 2014: Andrew Miller left via free agency to the New York Yankees
December 19, 2014: Signed Wesley Wright as a free agent
January 9, 2015: Signed Delmon Young as a free agent
January 27, 2015: Acquired Travis Snider from the Pittsburgh Pirates for Stephen Tarpley (minors) and Steven Brault (minors)

The Orioles missed the playoffs in 2015, finishing with 81 victories after winning five in a row to end the season.

Now, if you think this is the time when I should point out that the Orioles spent a boatload of money this offseason, you’d be exactly right. Because they did, to the tune of a top-ten payroll entering the year. The team, however, didn’t significantly upgrade a starting pitching staff that was their self-proclaimed top need, an area of sure frustration for fans.

The dollars were mostly spent retaining Chris Davis, Darren O’Day and Matt Wieters, but also to bring in Mark Trumbo, Hyun-Soo Kim and Yovani Gallardo from outside the organization. But the Orioles spent meaningful dollars nevertheless, and should be applauded for it.

At the same time, if some O’s fans were skeptical after a .500 season, a 20 percent price increase, and two failed opportunities in three years to build on playoff seasons, I can’t say that I blame them.

If increased prices and fewer discounted promotions have fans less able to attend games than in years past, I can’t blame them. After all, this club has just one wildcard game and one ALDS win to its name in the past 19 years. It still endured 14 consecutive losing seasons before 2012.

The last five years are a big step in the right direction, without a doubt. But the organization still has a way to go in building a consistent base of season-ticket holders and stream of walk-up attendees.

Just look at how many “Camden green” seats you can spot the next time you watch a game played at Oriole Park. Sadly, they’re pretty plentiful these days.

15 Comments

15 Comments

  1. Bancells Moustache

    September 2, 2016 at 11:24 am

    “IT’S ALL ABOUT THE MONEY BOYS!!”
    Big Dan Teague

    All excellent points Steve, but every time I kick this idea around I come back to the same thing.

    It’s the money. Orioles games are simply too damn expensive for a weeknight.

    I get it, you can bring your own food and drink into the game, Upper Reserve is 15 dollars yadda yadda yadda. But all those people getting off work sitting in the Pratt St. Pub, Mother’s, etc. wetting their whistles, they aren’t throwing together a bag of turkey sandwiches to bolster the old budget. They’ll just sit there and watch it on the tube. Plus the optics of this, in and of itself is pretty ugly when you think about it; If you’ve been following a team for 30 years, rode with them thick and thin, why the h**l should you have to pack a lunch and sit on top of the Bromo-Seltzer tower to enjoy a night at the Yard (in a publicly financed stadium, no less? It’s the Orioles essentially saying ‘yeah, we’re ripping you off, but we feel bad about it so bring some Slim Jims to wash down with your 8 dollar can of Budweiser’.
    As I said before, both the Orioles and MLB continue to talk a big game about getting the young people out to the ball field. Yet they continue to price those individuals out and complain that the stands are full of 50 year old Legg Mason-types. Those guys are a good revenue source, but there simply isn’t enough of them in the Baltimore market to fill up the seats, and many of them and their kids are wearing red shirts that say HARPER on the back. It reminds me a lot of when Vegas was flagging in the late 80’s, and their response was to build these colossal, theme park style hotels (bring the whole family!). That gave them a brief shot in the arm, but it wasn’t until Vegas re-branded as young, sexy and hip that the money poured in. Cut the costs. If Delaware North doesn’t like it, tell them to walk. Use social media as a real tool. I’m “friends” with the Orioles, and each post is either the recap or pictures of Buck Showalter with under-privileged youth. That’s all fine and well, but every night my feed should be full of photos of people having the time of their life. 10 year olds hi-fiving Dad. Pretty girls holding frosty beverages and screaming their heads off when the Big Fella puts one on the flag court, not Manny Machado wearing jeans with his dog. The Orioles are a better team, have a better stadium, and have as good a tradition as any sports franchise in America. There is no reason why they should be floundering at the gate like they are.

    • Steve Cockey

      September 2, 2016 at 1:19 pm

      It’s expensive for sure, Stache. And j agree that weeknights are a prime opportunity to offer some compelling discounts to get more butts in the seats.

      I gave the example previously that a few weeks back, the Tues/Wed Red Sox series was more expensive than coming that same week on Friday or Sunday to see Houston. The Sox series was dead, and Fri-Sun all had nice crowds. Easy decision to come on a weekend vs. paying MORE to leave work, fight traffic to get downtown and park, and then have to work the next day.

  2. jan417

    September 2, 2016 at 1:16 pm

    I live on the Eastern Shore. I am retired and my husband works. I have family in Baltimore and when we go to a game,they come with us.

    Here’s the deal. On weeknights if we want to go to a game ( and we have been to six this year by the way) my husband has to take off work early. After a nearly two hour drive, we pick up our family members and walk to the game from their neighborhood. At least we don’t have to pay parking. My husband and I pay for the tickets.

    If we want four of us to go, it costs over 250 dollars just for tickets. We could buy cheaper seats, but if we are going to travel that far we really do want good seats. Some games are even more than that depending on what promotion is going on OR which team is playing.The seats I got for $60 each on a normal game were 100 plus on Manny Machado Garden Gnome day. For the Yankees series this weekend they are also over $100. I was going to to Saturday because we will be in Baltimore anyway, but I can’t afford it.

    As for the comments about Social Media, why not market to ALL of your constituents, old, young, families, etc. There is PLENTY of social media space for EVERYONE.

    P.S. Not sure where “Delaware North” is, but I see no reason to insult ANY of your market.

    • speedbump210

      September 2, 2016 at 1:40 pm

      Delaware North is the company the Orioles use for their food vendors.

    • Bancells Moustache

      September 2, 2016 at 1:40 pm

      Delaware North is the contracted provider of all concessions in Oriole Park, and thus one of the primary fleecers of you and I. I’ve no beef with northern Delaware the state… except the people at the Cinnabon in the Christiana mall. Screw those guys! They know why…

    • Steve Cockey

      September 2, 2016 at 2:02 pm

      Stache: I think we need to hear this Cinnabon story.

      But breakfast pastries aside, these are all excellent points, Jan. What you just described is what I think a lot of fans are experiencing. Difficulty getting to the park on weeknights especially, as always. But when you couple that with a 20% overall price hike after variable pricing has already made some of these weeknight games against ‘premium’ opponents more expensive, plenty are just saying ‘forget it’ and opting to stay home. I can’t blame them.

  3. Boog Robinson Robinson

    September 2, 2016 at 2:26 pm

    Ummmmmmmm……Cinnabon……

  4. kpizzow2112

    September 2, 2016 at 2:47 pm

    I think these are all great points – but when it is all said and done a night at the ball park is expensive. Say I make $30 an hour – that’s 60k plus a year. Ballgame costs $200 for a family of four with a decent seat, parking food etc. I need to work 7 hours – nearly a whole day to pay for that. I know most people make more than that – but it’s not an insignificant amount of money. Add in HDTV – I can sit home and watch it – DVR it – skip commercials – pause it etc. I think NFL attendance would struggle too if it wasn’t only 8 home games. I love my birds – but we all have other demands on our finances and a night at the Yard is not cheap.

    • Steve Cockey

      September 2, 2016 at 4:27 pm

      It’s expensive for sure. And I don’t think the O’s are doing nearly enough to make it more compelling to come and affordable for folks.

  5. claudecat

    September 2, 2016 at 2:48 pm

    Excellent piece Steve! Best I’ve seen on this complex topic. Exhaustive, well reasoned, all the facts in place… I can’t think of a single thing I’d add. Kudos to you sir!

    • Steve Cockey

      September 2, 2016 at 4:01 pm

      Thanks, Claudecat! I appreciate the kinds words.

  6. 5brooks5

    September 2, 2016 at 6:08 pm

    Claudecat, It must be genetic!

  7. DutchDinger

    September 3, 2016 at 4:05 am

    He got all ‘cocky’ and nailed it. Nice piece of journalism. Best I’ve read on the subject.

    • Steve Cockey

      September 3, 2016 at 9:50 am

      Appreciate it, Dutch. And I’ve never heard that one before ;).

  8. boot9w

    September 7, 2016 at 12:58 pm

    The answer is the cost. If most of the money is in the TV deals, why are the tickets and concessions so freakin’ high??

    I live in Northern VA, an hour away without traffic, 2.5 hours in rush hour. I could stomach the traffic if I wasn’t paying nearly the same as sitting in my seats at M&T.

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