It would be an exaggeration to contend that the worm has turned in regard to the current state of Baltimore’s bifurcated major sports landscape, but the Orioles have found themselves in a position to grab a bigger chunk of the public relations high ground while the Ravens continue to grapple with the nettlesome Lamar Jackson contract situation.
In this case, timing is everything. The O’s are in the midst of their most upbeat spring training in years and the Ravens appear likely to make a decision today that will further complicate their relationship with a wildly popular player who is – when healthy – arguably the most dynamic athlete in the National Football League.
Of course, it’s important to keep in mind that we’re not talking about a battle for the hearts of regional sports fans or even their wallets. The two fan bases are populated largely by the same group of customers, but the Ravens will always have an economic advantage by virtue of the decision to require seat licenses to buy season tickets when M&T Bank Stadium opened, which – to a great extent – locked in fan loyalty.
The Orioles have spent the last two decades battling attendance attrition on several fronts and may never recapture the competitive dominance they displayed during the 1960s and ‘70s nor the civic excitement that engulfed the franchise during its first decade at Oriole Park.
What the club has to offer this season is the extension of a competitive renaissance that unexpectedly kicked into gear last year and real hope that the bright young stars emerging from Mike Elias’s four-year rebuild will finally turn the tide at the turnstiles.
Who in the Baltimore metropolitan sports universe isn’t excited about the team’s first full season with budding superstars Adley Rutschman and Gunnar Henderson in the starting lineup…or the likely arrival of top pitching prospect Grayson Rodriguez in the starting rotation?
The question is whether a lot of fans would rather watch them on their 70-inch HD screens at home or come back downtown in significantly greater numbers than last year, which barely exceeded the total number of fans who showed up for the Orioles’ dismal 54-win pre-pandemic performance in 2019.
The Ravens may not have to worry about a serious impact on attendance, but the Jackson contract dispute has put them in what appears to be a no-win position – both from a competitive and public relations standpoint. Certainly, they’ve weathered worse crises than having to go forward – or not – with one very popular star, but all of the options available to the team with the two-week franchise window set to close today seem fraught with peril.
If they put the exclusive franchise tag on him, the projected $45 million Jackson would get next season would eat up a large portion of the club’s payroll, severely limiting roster flexibility. The non-exclusive franchise salary is projected to be about $32 million and creates the possibility that another team could step in and acquire him for two first-round picks. The Ravens could also give Jackson the huge guaranteed contract he desires, but that seems unlikely considering both the payroll impact and the durability questions that have dogged him the past two seasons.
If he does end up in another uniform, there will be a lot of disappointed Ravens fans, but there clearly is no unanimity among the fan base on what the team ought to do. Steve Bisciotti and Eric DeCosta are pretty much damned if they do and damned if they don’t.
The Orioles, meanwhile, are enjoying the calm after chairman and CEO John Angelos seemed to put to rest a storm of speculation that the team might be sold and/or moved out of Baltimore. He recently doubled down on his earlier insistence that the Orioles would be in Baltimore “as long as Fort McHenry is standing watch over the Inner Harbor,” and went even further in an attempt to remove any doubt about the future of the franchise.
Though the O’s remain in new-lease limbo, Angelos also promised that a long-term lease would be signed over the next few months. He conceded that he is interested in finding an investor to buy a minority share of the franchise, but said the family intends to retain its majority interest in perpetuity.
If fans are willing to take him at his word, they can relax and get ready for Opening Day, which is just 30 days away.