The Baltimore Orioles, bucking a soft economy and a round of corporate belt-tightening, have accepted reservations for more than half the luxury boxes available at the new Camden Yards ballpark and hope to be sold out of the pricey accommodations before Opening Day of the 1991 baseball season.
Six weeks after launching their sales campaign, the Orioles say that 32 of the 60 suites have been set aside with non-refundable deposits of $10,000 and another seven are on hold, leaving team officials with 21 to lease before the new ballpark's scheduled opening in spring 1992.
Local corporations, which are most likely to rent a majority of the suites, don't appear to have been hamstrung by the economic slump. So far, the units they are selecting are those in the best locations -- and carrying the most expensive price tags. Of the 11 suites with top rent of $95,000, nine are rented and two others are being held for customers who expect to complete their deals soon, said Julie Dryer, Orioles director of private-suite sales. All four suites priced at $85,000 also have been reserved, Dryer said. Most of the remaining suites are at the lowest end of the price scale -- $65,000 and $55,000 -- and are located in the outfield.
The Orioles' early results are roughly comparable with the sales record of other teams that recently have moved into new stadiums. The Chicago White Sox, who expect to move into the new Comiskey Park next April, leased 55 of 84 luxury boxes in the first five weeks, said Bob Voight, the team's director of ticket sales. The team still is trying to attract renters for eight of its lower-priced suites, Voight said.
Toronto's SkyDome has 161 private suites, ranging up to $225,000 (Canadian) per season. When the stadium opened, all but 11 had been rented, even though the marketing campaign began the day of the October 1987 stock-market crash.
Dryer said the Orioles are "about right on schedule" with the rentals of their suites. Through December, she said, the team planned to restrict discussions to its major advertisers and to the 30 local companies that have backed a 10-year Orioles season-ticket guarantee. Starting next month, the team will contact full-season ticket holders and, in February, the general public can bid on whatever is left.
Several local companies and a regional law firm acknowledged last week that they have reserved luxury boxes. McCormick & Co. Inc., the Baltimore-based spice maker, Crown Central Petroleum Corp., and Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. have taken out three-year leases on 10-seat luxury boxes at infield locations, costing $75,000 per year. Whiteford, Taylor & Preston, which has law offices in Baltimore and Washington, has signed a five-year lease for a 14-seat suite in an outfield location, costing $75,000 per year. The Baltimore Sun has rented a 12-seat infield box for $85,000.
Some others have taken a wait-and-see attitude. Morton P. Fisher Jr., a partner at Frank, Bernstein, Conaway & Goldman, one of the 30 guarantors of Orioles season tickets, said the law firm has discussed the luxury suites with the Orioles, but hasn't decided whether to rent one.
"We want to make sure what we purchase is conducive to our plans for entertaining," said Fisher, who noted that the law firm might buy a block of tickets in a prime location instead.
USF&G Corp. and MNC Financial Inc., two of the Orioles' longtime supporters that have been hit hard by shaky financial markets, apparently are moving cautiously. A spokesman for MNC said it would have no comment on the stadium suites. USF&G, a spokesman said, hasn't signed up for a suite, although the insurance company is "definitely interested in pursuing the idea."
Several corporate executives said they decided to rent the suites, in part, because they wanted to show support for the team and for Baltimore. "It was the right thing from a community standpoint, and from every standpoint," said Henry A. Rosenberg Jr., Crown's chairman and chief executive officer. "We'd like to have some tickets we can use for our own people and our friends."
Robert B. McFadden, an executive vice president at McCormick, said that leasing a suite was as much "a community thing" as a decision based on business considerations. "Baltimore did not look good when time came to find people to buy the Orioles. People in the business community really have got to be more aggressive in supporting this kind of thing."
For the most part, the businessmen said they were pleased with the design of the luxury boxes, which have areas for watching the game outside as well as enclosed suites equipped with televisions, telephones and a wet bar. "You'll feel like you're at a ballgame, not in a theater or someplace," McFadden said.
However, several noted that they weren't thrilled with a point in the lease that requires payment of the first year's rent 90 days after the contract has been executed. For many, that means paying their hefty bills more than a year before the first game at Camden Yards is played.
"None of us like to pay our bills 18 months in advance," McFadden said. "I'd prefer to hold the money longer, but I understand why they're doing that."
Dryer, the Orioles official, defended the policy, which she said was in line with the marketing practices of other teams. "Our schedule, in comparison, is not aggressive," she said. "We could have started selling two years ago."
In BG&E's case, the company is spending on a luxury box just as it is about to hit consumers with its biggest rate increase in history. But Art Slusark, a spokesman for the utility, stressed that the rate hike won't be used to pay for BG&E's baseball suite. "Our stockholders pay for baseball tickets, not rate-payers," Slusark said.