On a late January Saturday morning, there was always an arresting sight surrounding the Baltimore Convention Center. The weather was often raw, and Opening Day was still more than two months away, but Orioles fans gathered to await the opening of FanFest.
No matter how many years I saw the crowds, it still surprised me. It could be 25 degrees with bitter winds, snow on the ground, but these people wanted a taste of their Orioles.
Now, it’s gone. The news, first reported by MASNsports.com, that the Orioles weren’t holding FanFest makes me sad.
As the team’s record has worsened, so has attendance at the annual event. The Convention Center isn’t the most hospitable venue for FanFest. It seems more appropriate for car and boat shows, but it’s adjacent to Oriole Park, and it’s the largest logical space.
FanFest was most valuable to hard-core fans. This past January, it was the first time they had seen the new management duo of Mike Elias and Brandon Hyde, and fans agreed both made a good impression.
Some years there was actual news made at FanFest. In 2018, manager Buck Showalter announced that Manny Machado would shift from third base to shortstop.
Sometimes the news was who was and wasn’t there. There was always high drama surrounding Machado. Would he actually attend FanFest? For Showalter, FanFest was a command performance, and there had better be a good excuse if players didn’t attend.
The Orioles would have a get-together the night before FanFest to acquaint themselves with new players and reconnect with returning ones, and Showalter looked at this as team building.
In 2018, he excused Machado but came down hard on Jonathan Schoop, who was nearing an arbitration hearing. Schoop didn’t attend on the advice of his agent, but he ended up settling his contract issue shortly after FanFest.
FanFest was a great opportunity for fans to get to know players they didn’t have much familiarity with. In Wei-Yin Chen’s four years with the team, he only attended one FanFest, and that helped distance a truly warm player with a language barrier from the fan base. But Chen was a rare exception.
It was always a highlight when Adam Jones was brought to the media room. After not hearing from the Orioles’ highest-profile player for several months, we were always eager to listen to his latest thoughts on the team’s moves during the offseason. He’d occasionally mildly criticize the team, which made for great copy.
Autograph sessions sold out quickly, but that wasn’t the case last year. With so many new players, a 2020 FanFest would be a great chance for fans to interact with Hunter Harvey, Austin Hays, John Means and Anthony Santander, most of whom had been to previous gatherings, but now are identifiable pieces of the ballclub.
When fans were able to get autographs from Jones, Machado, Schoop and J.J. Hardy, it was a highlight. Many fans would like to have the opportunity to get Trey Mancini’s autograph, but there aren’t many others on the team who generate his excitement.
There’s another problem bigger than the end of FanFest, and it’s the inability of the Orioles and other teams to generate sufficient interest among younger fans.
FanFest’s attendees were the hardest of the hard core, the kind of fans who have full or partial season tickets. The team has attempted to appeal to the casual or social fan. Last year, they staged country music concerts and had regular Friday fireworks.
In 2017, they tried to gear much of FanFest toward younger fans, but many of the older fans complained that there was no longer much of interest at FanFest for them.
Last year, the Orioles included an extra panel with analytics guru Sig Mejdal, whose work is popular with younger fans.
It’s important to try to generate interest among millennials, those who are currently 25-39, and vital that those following them, Generation Z, become fans, too, while not taking the older fan base for granted.
For their part, the Orioles are re-examining every part of their organization and as they’ve changed their baseball operations, they’re looking at changes in the way they do business, too. FanFest’s elimination is one way.
After covering the Nationals’ three home World Series games, I can assure you there are plenty of younger fans eager to attend marquee events, but they need to be everyday fans, too.
The Orioles hope to encourage player interaction with fans in events that will replace FanFest, but other teams continue holding similar successful events.
The Nationals have a two-day gathering, and the Chicago Cubs have a fabulously successful convention each January that features not only current players, coaches and executives, but a large number of former Cubs.
At FanFest, the Orioles often featured popular former players, and while it’s important to celebrate the past, fans need to identify with the current players, too.
It would be nice if new events can make fans feel closer to the players, and perhaps they’ll be successful. But I’m going to miss FanFest.