Jim and Suellen McGovern loved being Camden Yards regulars. For 20 years, they proudly flaunted their Sunday ticket package, much as they did the Orioles Hawaiian shirts they wore to the Carolina League All-Star Classic in Frederick on June 18.
“Sunday home games, we were there for all of ’em,” said Jim, 70.
“Club seats, section 218,” said Suellen, 71.
The Mount Airy residents had the package again last season, but Jim’s aorta replacement surgery kept them from making it to any games as the Orioles suffered through a franchise-worst 115 losses.
Jim’s health and all the losing have kept the McGoverns away from Oriole Park this year as well. Instead, they make the easier trip to watch the Orioles’ High-A affiliate in Frederick, hoping to have better reasons to go to Camden Yards next year.
The average announced attendance of 16,758 entering the current homestand represents an 18% drop over the same period last year — when the Orioles had the worst record in club history and traded away many of their stars. Their 2018 rank of 27th out of 30 major league teams in attendance has fallen, too, to 28th.
The team, which has the worst record in baseball, is intent on rebuilding its talent base in hopes of winning in the future. The Orioles also have the task of rebuilding that depleted fan base — which, the club acknowledges, will take a lot more than just winning.
“We’re not winning a ton of games right now,” first-year executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias said. “That’s obvious. I do think that this is an entertaining team, a gritty team.
“I think watching this club grow over the next few years is gonna be fun, and that, to me, is the heart of it. We’ll keep our eye on the long-term goal, which is replenishing the talent base in this organization and having a vision down the line of not just an OK team but a playoff-caliber team in the American League East.”
As the Orioles’ new baseball operations regime works to develop a talent pipeline that leads to years of competitiveness, the organization is trying to cultivate the same long-term sustainability when it comes to its fans. The Orioles are using more data analysis not only to help evaluate and develop players, but also to attract and develop a fan base in terms by considering how they sell tickets and schedule promotions.
“If we win games, more people are gonna come here,” outfielder Trey Mancini said. “That’s the bottom line. A lot of it’s more on us than the fans.”
Among the most affected by the drop in attendance might be those who work game nights at stands throughout the ballpark.
Multiple workers at concessions stands told The Baltimore Sun that unless the New York Yankees or Boston Red Sox — the visiting teams for seven of Camden Yards’ eight largest announced crowds this season — are in town or it’s a giveaway night, it’s unlikely they’ll do much business. Workers who handle stands to benefit nonprofit groups said they might bring in one-fourth as much on a regular night as they might have when the attendance was higher while the team was contending from 2012 to 2017.
Meanwhile, others who work at the ballpark as a way to bring in secondary income said they sometimes close their stands early because their area does not have enough fans to stay open; that means lost hours and lost pay.
Both the baseball side and the business side definitely have a long-term vision.
“Do the math,” said Susan Kenjorski, a concessions worker whose revenue benefits a nonprofit. “If attendance is low, we don’t make as much.”
Neither representatives from Delaware North, an Orioles concessions and retail provider that oversees the nonprofit workers in the ballpark, nor JET Services, a subcontractor that supplies concessions workers, responded to multiple interview requests. The Maryland Stadium Authority declined an interview request but confirmed it is $1.1 million short of projections for the 2018-19 fiscal year for revenue from the 8% admissions tax on Camden Yards ticket sales.
The Orioles say they don’t have fewer employees as a result of the attendance drop. The team said it believes ballpark staffing has increased in recent years, especially given the greater focus on security.
That partially stems from downtown protests after the death of Freddie Gray from injuries suffered in police custody in April 2015, which led to a game played with no fans at Camden Yards. But the full impact of that might have been delayed because season tickets had already been purchased for that year. Orioles attendance has declined every year since, falling from about 2.3 million fans in 2015 to about 1.6 million in 2018, the team’s lowest attendance in a non-strike-shortened season since 1978.
Andrew Zimbalist, an economics professor at Smith College in Massachusetts who has done consulting in the sports industry, said attendance “drives everything,” from concessions and memorabilia sales to corporate sponsorships and television. Through Monday’s games, all but 12 teams have suffered a decline in average attendance per game; the Orioles have the fourth-largest decrease of any team, per Baseball Reference.
“It’s obviously a downward spiral,” Zimbalist said. “Attendance goes down, there’s less excitement, fewer people go, you have more difficulties selling your sponsorships, and it goes down on and on like that.
“It even drives television. People who are watching think to themselves, ‘Why am I watching this if no one’s even going to the ballpark?’ ”
“It really is a great way to kind of create a little community in the ballpark of people that enjoy the same experience,” said Greg Bader, Orioles vice president of communications and marketing.
Many fans who spoke to The Sun listed giveaways and the ballpark atmosphere among their primary reasons for attending games this season.
“Camden Yards just has a different feel to it,” said William Niner, 41, of Hampstead. “It’s got that old, throwback feel. It feels like home when you go there.”
In its second season, the Kids Cheer Free promotion — which allows an adult to bring two children age 9 or under into the ballpark for free with the purchase of an upper-deck ticket — has been fairly successful on weekends. But the Orioles hope to see a midweek boost this summer.
Through a new analytics department, the Orioles are tracking the effectiveness of such deals, seeing what times fans arrive for various promotions and deploying other uses for data they hadn’t previously capitalized on.
“Both the baseball side and the business side definitely have a long-term vision,” Bader said.
Bader said he hopes every Orioles fan reads “Astroball,” a book that details the decision-making Houston’s front office used to quickly rebuild and shows the path Baltimore is following.
In 2012, Elias’ first year with the Astros, Houston ranked 28th in attendance in the second of four straight seasons with at least 92 losses. Since, they’ve had at least 84 victories every year and won the 2017 World Series while climbing into the top 10 in attendance the past two seasons.
The Orioles already have the Astros beat in affordability. Team Marketing Report’s 2019 Fan Cost Index, which ranks teams by cost for a family of four to attend a game and buy concessions, retail and parking, has the Orioles as the fifth-most affordable game experience in baseball. The Astros have the third-highest cost per game, and even during their down years from 2012 to 2014, they ranked above league average each year. Factor in Kids Cheer Free and the Oriole Park policy that allows fans to bring their own food and beverages, and the value increases further.
There’s also consideration for fans who bought Birdland Memberships, the Orioles’ effort to redefine what it means to be a season-ticket holder. Along with a ticket plan that includes a certain number of home games, fans receive “points” based on their plan and seat locations that can be redeemed for various experiences.
During a recent homestand, the Orioles hosted a Q&A with Elias and other members of the baseball operations department for Birdland Members. Other options have included brunch with Orioles legends such as Brooks Robinson and Eddie Murray, or the opportunity to take batting practice on the field at Camden Yards. Other Birdland Membership benefits include retail and concessions discounts, free access to tours and early entry to games.
Fans who buy them are promised the best price for their seats. A midseason drop in ticket prices would mean that’s not the case, and the Orioles have no interest in undercutting the fans who have stayed invested at the beginning of the rebuild.
“When they start producing again,” said Eric Wetzel, 36, a Union Bridge resident who bought a 13-game Birdland Membership, “I think the crowds are gonna come back.”