A sad goodbye to Orioles' FanFest - BaltimoreBaseball.com

Rich Dubroff

A sad goodbye to Orioles’ FanFest

Photo Credit: Joy R. Absalon

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.

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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.

Follow Rich Dubroff on Twitter @RichDubroffMLB

29 Comments

29 Comments

  1. karks

    October 29, 2019 at 7:28 am

    That is really sad. It was a special event and I’m going to miss it. I wish they would reconsider.

  2. Orial

    October 29, 2019 at 8:54 am

    Excellent article Rich. Finally an explanation/theory into the reasoning. All being said it appears that apathy followed by cost are the main reasons. Scary to think that the O’s and baseball are in the hands of us aging fans. It’s just the Timing that is worrisome. Attendance is flailing,they’re in search of fans,constant rumors of the downtown’s and O’s future,lease up in 2 years. It’s not exactly a confidence booster. Now you say the Nats go right into a 2 day affair after the Winter Meetings. I just worry that what we’re seeing here is the continued dominance of one franchise in the area over a former powerhouse franchise. Opposite directions.

    • Rich Dubroff

      October 29, 2019 at 9:21 am

      A reader on Twitter informed me that the Nats will now have theirs in January.

  3. mlbbirdfan

    October 29, 2019 at 9:20 am

    Excellent article — and excellent comment from Orial. My family along with several friends has been an 81-game season ticket holder since day one at Camden Yards. I am thrilled with the direction of the team, and patient, recognizing this will be a four or five year process, perhaps even longer. I am disappointed, however, because the Orioles front office has not done enough to reach out to its most loyal fans. The “diamond club“ membership is certainly valuable and I appreciate it. But, there could be a small ticket price cut. And one free Rutschman tee or some free gear in addition to the diamond club membership. And an online newsletter. And Fan Fest. Avoid the appearance: penny wise, pound foolish. More frequent communication. (By the way, who is our “designated owner”? Has MLB backed off that issue?)

    • Rich Dubroff

      October 29, 2019 at 3:26 pm

      Thank you, mlbbirdfan.

      • PhatBlue

        October 30, 2019 at 9:51 am

        Anyone check on the Moving Van’s lately? We could loose this team, the way things are going. Not only on the field but in the city as well. Go O’s

  4. CalsPals

    October 29, 2019 at 10:08 am

    Overall sad choice for the O’s brass, could really have run with the mentioned names, Mancini, even bring in some minor leaguers who are in their plans, many former O’s that I bet would participate…still part of Elias first impression, his entirely first fan fest, thrown to the wayside like many other things just for the sake of everything showing the impression it’s gotta be his idea…oh well…go O’s…

  5. boss61

    October 29, 2019 at 10:26 am

    I agree with Orial’s comments as well. This is an unwise decision by the O’s and will only fan the flames of those worrying about their relocation. Is this what management intends? Gotta wonder.

    I’ve been a season plan holder since before Fan Fest. I liked the event, but it also disappointed me in fixable ways (long lines outside in the cold, long queues for autographs). I’ve attended but more commonly I’ve given away my tickets to it especially as my kids have gotten older. I’ll miss it some, but a lot less than I miss winning baseball.

    As for the Generation Z fans, I suppose my kids count as two. Both have fervently urged me not to dump our ticket plan. If I don’t want to go, they’ll go and take friends. So I accomplished the rarity: the creation of two fans in the next generation. And if they are like me, their future spouses will be too.

    So, there is that. Still, I do not really understand the O’s decision. They need more public outreach, not less. If they do relocate (count me among the worriers), I’d be done with baseball forever. Just saying.

  6. The Cartoon Bird

    October 29, 2019 at 11:03 am

    The sustained losing of the Orioles from 1998-2011 significantly damaged the reputation of the Orioles among millennials. The cartoon bird is retro fashion and the multi-panel hat is unique to wear. OPACY is fun to go to on a Friday or Saturday night. But simply put, the perception of the Orioles among millennials is that they are losers. Then there is a large-segment of older fans who think it’s 1997, the Orioles are still a large-market franchise, and the answer is buy free agents. I really hope the Orioles can find sustained success on and off the field. But I am gravely worried that by the time they figure out how to win, no fans will be left to care.

  7. Bancells Moustache

    October 29, 2019 at 11:03 am

    More cost-cutting. I’m curious Rich, with all of this reduction of overhead, where is it being re-invested? Is it? The TV money is still rolling in, though the MASN case looms like a spectre over that, merchandise is still robust. Gate receipts and suite sales are surely lagging, though I have no doubt the Orioles price model keeps them from disaster. Reductions in scouting, payroll shrinking. We keep hearing about “increasing the Latin American footprint”, whatever that means. So what’s the story here? Are the Angelos boys battening down the hatches for the coming storm (MASN settlement, Peter’s inevitable departure and Uncle Sam’s response)?

    • Bancells Moustache

      October 29, 2019 at 12:50 pm

      Alos, any word on alternate events? This would make sense, since Baltimore itself is unquestionably affecting attendance, and the majority of the fan base isn’t in the city. Multiple smaller events in Harford, Carroll, Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties would be a pretty wise alternative.

    • Rich Dubroff

      October 29, 2019 at 1:33 pm

      The Orioles haven’t announced any alternate events, Bancells, but they say there will be fan-friendly ones.

  8. whiterose

    October 29, 2019 at 11:24 am

    Also, no one mentions the cancellation of the in season event at OPACY.
    This is another step to alienate fans to set up the move after lease expires.

    • Rich Dubroff

      October 29, 2019 at 11:27 am

      The in-season, ask the GM and manager event was strictly for season ticket holders. FanFest is for everyone. I think fans found value in the ask Buck and Dan event.

      • Jbigle1

        October 30, 2019 at 6:11 pm

        I mean who the hell are you going to see at Fanfest? We’d have to bring Adley Rutschman to generate excitement. It’s easy to complain when something like that goes away but my god I would not be attending fanfest right now. Going to the convention center, paying to park or taking the light rail (no thanks) for A Q&A with Hyde and Elias about rebuilding?

        There’s no reason they couldn’t bring it back or find a better solution when we have a team that will draw a big enough audience to put on a show like that. Personally id rather do just about anything other than go to the Baltimore Convention Center.

    • NCOriolesfan

      October 29, 2019 at 12:54 pm

      I wonder if ownership likes to see more empty seats at OPCY than occupied?

  9. bv22

    October 29, 2019 at 11:58 am

    On the one hand, I’m sad to see it go, but on the other, I’m excited to see what the replacement event(s) will be. Even though I have gotten a bunch of awesome cheaply-priced autographs as well as some great free O’s swag over the years, the event was kind of tired. I haven’t really looked forward to going over the last few years because the lines were just ridiculous and the thought of spending the day in line after line just to get a couple of key autographs or a coveted giveaway was kind of depressing (and hard on my back). To do anything there, you had to wait in an ungodly long line and the whole event seemed more geared to having you spend money more than anything else. I also feel like the O’s didn’t ever really bring in a ton of former O’s to the event- it always seemed like the former players that showed up were there because they were employed by the team in some manner (Palmer, Dempsey, Bordick). I would’ve loved to have seen Ben McDonald or Gregg Olsen or Mike Devereaux or Mickey Tettleton, but they were never there. I also don’t understand why Cal, Brooks, Eddie, and Frank and Earl (when they were alive) were never brought into the event. Nowadays, it would be awesome to even see Mike Mussina there. I know it’s supposed to be an event to mainly showcase the current team, but everyone has their favorites from past years that they would be thrilled to see/meet so it could truly be an event for all generations of fans.

    • Rich Dubroff

      October 29, 2019 at 1:37 pm

      Passionate and interesting thoughts, bv.

  10. ClayDal

    October 29, 2019 at 12:07 pm

    Word that there would be no FanFest this winter was first leaked out on Roch Kubatko’s MASN blog on October 19th. 10 days later, no public statement by the Orioles. One of the issues I have had with ownership is a lack of transparency. 2 years ago for instance, they stopped simulcasting MASN games on WJZ. It was only 20 games and they were good advertising for people to get cable so they could watch the other 140 games. No explanation given, just a press release. Same thing in 2017 when Ken Rosenthal exposed the fact that Brady Anderson’s role in the organization was more than we all thought. They didn’t defend or deny, just ignored it. Going back to FanFest, if they had been out front and explained what they planned on actually doing, there would be less outrage and speculation. If they plan on doing a caravan or something similar, fine. It might not be as good as FamFest, but at least it would show they are trying something different. But overall a bad PR move

  11. NCOriolesfan

    October 29, 2019 at 12:47 pm

    Rich, I just found out about the Fan Fest cancellation from WBAL-TV. When was this reported by Roch in MASN. I’ve asked two days in-a-row and no one has answered, at least seriously. Your article is the first I’ve seen on the cancellation.

    • Rich Dubroff

      October 29, 2019 at 1:35 pm

      NC, I should have written about it sooner, but the World Series got in the way.

  12. McGraw1894

    October 29, 2019 at 1:05 pm

    I’m very upset that FanFest has been canceled. It was a great way to focus on Orioles baseball before spring training. Standing in line in the cold wasn’t great, but they usually let us in early on the coldest days. I enjoyed the sessions with Buck and the players and usually found something neat in the room with old uniforms and other gear. I think it was a terrible idea to cancel the event without providing information on the events which would replace it. It’s leaving me with a very empty feeling.

    • Rich Dubroff

      October 29, 2019 at 1:36 pm

      Nice to hear from you, McGraw. Interesting thoughts.

  13. CGarcia

    October 29, 2019 at 2:12 pm

    Fanfest for me and my kids has been a family tradition, extremely dissapointed to hear the news of it’s cancellation. I wish there was a way to convinced them to bring it back. Sad, new management doesn’t have a pulse on what events fans care about.

  14. B.C. Bird

    October 29, 2019 at 2:32 pm

    Question for you and our readers Rich. With all of the negativity about the franchise and the owners I wonder where our loyalties actually lie. Is it with the team and its players, is it with the city of Baltimore or is it a combination of both. I have been a long suffering Orioles fan and if all the losing isn’t enough the thought of the franchise relocating would be the last straw. I personally have never met the owners but I would go on record stating I do not like what they have done to this once proud team.
    I am similarly in angst over the NFL Oakland Raiders, I love the team and the city but am almost certain I will not cheer for Vegas. The players will be the same but it will be different. Am I alone int his way of thinking?
    I do not live in either Oakland nor Baltimore yet I seem to have a love for tradition and do not want change. Am I alone in this thought or do other readers feel the same.
    I am hoping the Birds can turn things around but admit I am skeptical. Whats that saying… the more things change the more they stay the same

  15. Birdman

    October 29, 2019 at 7:15 pm

    Seems like a tone-deaf decision for a franchise already facing severely declining attendance. As noted by several folks above, this type of penny pinching will only exacerbate worries about the long term future of the franchise in Baltimore.

    A couple of questions come to mind.

    Is Elias involved in these type of decisions, or is it strictly the “business” side of the organization?

    The Orioles appear to be in a pretty severe salary cutting mode (ex: reportedly unwilling to spend a relatively paltry $7 million to keep one of their most productive hitters, Villar). Do we know whether any significant portion of those salary savings are actually being re-invested in the player development “pipeline”?

  16. mcgooding

    October 29, 2019 at 7:45 pm

    Rich, thanks for taking a moment from your WS coverage to comment on a more local sports story. I wrote to you last week about this matter, waiting to hear your opinion. It seems as though we share many of the same thoughts. The one thing that I notice is that the D.C. sports teams support one another more via social media than do Baltimore teams. From the Capitals, to the Nationals, and heck, even the Mystics, these Washington based teams really seem to follow and support each other. Players from these teams go to the games of their fellow local athletes. These games are broadcasted on national tv, and I’ve always wanted that to happen here. It’s a rarity that you see Raven’s players at an O’s game, or Oriole’s players at a Raven’s game. I think for today’s youth who seem to be more into football than baseball, that could pique their interest in a sport that they otherwise wouldn’t follow. I think that the O’s should be trying to think outside of the box to promote this Oriole’s team!

    • Rich Dubroff

      October 29, 2019 at 11:19 pm

      I saw a number of Ravens players at Orioles games this season. A few threw out the first pitch.

  17. JerryGarcia

    November 10, 2019 at 2:47 am

    Fanfest being cancelled is said. Its been around almost as long as Elias has been alive and predates Camden Yards. I remember Billy Ripken and Ben McDonald and Frank Robinson being there in the early years. Why Not.
    Fanfest made fans feel a part of the Orioles. What message does cancelling fanfest send?
    If you want the younger folks to feel a part of, bring back orioles they rember growing up, dont cancel it.
    Wondering what the Orioles Advocates response to the cancellation was.
    Earlier this season I got an email regarding proposed focus groups, then no follow up.
    Communication on the Birdland membersip programs I participated in was awful.
    I attended just about every fanfest, so did my dad, my wife, my kids grew up at them, and my kids are Mr Elias’ age.
    When I sent my Rep an email regarding the rumour about cancellation of fanfest I never received a response from any higher ups.
    So Mr Elias, why dont you add a statue of yourself to Legends Park.
    The fans are an important part of the Orioles and you Need to remember that. Watch that empty stadium game. Or think about why I felt sad most Sundays when I sat in the club level, surrounded by many mostly empty sections.
    Hey, even an 8,000 attendance at fanfest in the middle of winter is better than some of the attendance I saw on Sundays at Camden Yards. And at least the fans want to particpate, not drink wine and chat about the latest Office episode.

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