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.
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:
— Baltimore Orioles (@Orioles) July 18, 2015
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.