Park's receipts are outpacing all estimates

BIG GREEN MONEY MACHINE

April 12, 1992|By Mark Hyman | Mark Hyman,Staff Writer

After one week of eating, drinking and merchandising at Oriole Park at Camden Yards, this much safely can be said

about the early performance of the new downtown ballpark.

It is generating big bucks.

So big that the Maryland Stadium Authority may have significantly underestimated how much it will bring in.

Last month, authority members gave a fiscal year 1993 budget to members of the General Assembly, including an estimate of the Orioles' rent for the 1992 season. Using the profit-sharing formula that ties the rent payment to team profits, they came up with what then seemed a reasonable figure: $4.5 million.

But after last week's feeding frenzy for tickets, souvenirs and ballpark food, that number seems far off the mark to many ballpark planners, including stadium authority chairman Herbert J. Belgrad.

"I think we could come close to doubling that amount," he said last week. "In every department, the fans have exceeded out projections, and our projections were expected to be reliable, not conservative."

A $9 million payment would start the Orioles off at the new stadium in record rent territory. In 38 years at Memorial Stadium, owned by the city of Baltimore, the Orioles' highest rent payment was $5.2 million in 1989. As recently as 1990, the team paid only $1.8 million.

Belgrad said that the authority would use larger-than-expected rent payments to offset its debt on the stadium, which cost about $106 million to build after the authority had spent $100 million for the 85-acre site. In time, Belgrad said, he hoped to wean the authority from the instant lottery.

"Our objective is to reduce our reliance on the special lotteries and to become independent of them all together in an eight-to-10-year period," Belgrad said.

In the first week, business has been brisk in virtually every ballpark department. The fast start includes these areas:

ATTENDANCE

To no one's surprise, the opening of the ballpark turned a three-game series with the Cleveland Indians into something akin to an April World Series. For the midweek games, the Orioles racked up the expected Opening Day sellout and total attendance of 129,084.

Of the 16 major-league ballparks to open since 1965, only one has drawn more fans at this stage: Toronto's SkyDome. When its doors opened in June 1989, the first three Blue Jays games attracted 139,570.

The Orioles' previous attendance record after three games almost fell after the tickets had been counted for the first two games of the season. After two games, the Orioles had drawn 86,438, compared with the three-game record set last year of 96,927.

FOOD AND DRINK

It could be a combination of factors: more concession stand locations, hungrier fans, the addition of a buffet supper on the club level for $19.95. But business has never been better at a Baltimore ballpark for ARA Services, the stadium caterer.

"Opening Day was tremendous," said Joe Costa, an ARA vice president. "It was three times greater than our best Opening Day at Memorial Stadium."

The company closely guards the most useful information about its sales, including the average expenditure by fans on food, drink and novelty items. The company also does not disclose the volume of beer it sells.

But ARA is willing to reveal some totals, which, at the very least, could lead to a serious gastrointestinal disorder.

On Opening Day, ARA served: 5,000 pretzels, 3,000 grilled Italian sausages, 4,000 ounces of popcorn and 1,000 of the new grilled chicken sandwiches. Boog Powell, the man behind the charcoal grill, dished up 2,200 pork and beef barbecue sandwiches for the first game.

HATS, SHIRTS, PROGRAMS

Forget the oversized game tickets for the first game. Forget the crab cakes, the sausages, the new kiddie menu. During the first week, the thing fans wanted most were $3 game programs. They were willing to stand in line for more than an hour to pick up copies of the first run of 50,000, which quickly sold out on Monday. By Wednesday evening, ARA had another 10,000 copies for sale, and the lines again were weaving through the ballpark concourse.

Programs haven't been the only hot sellers. ARA also all but sold out of its line of special Opening Day items: 7,200 dated T-shirts, 10,000 limited edition pennants, 20,000 lapel pins and 3,000 baseballs.

On Opening Day, the 300 people who weren't lined up for a game program were shopping in the Orioles store in the warehouse, where Orioles fans have flocked, cash in hand.

"I expected we'd do well in the store, but I've been completely and totally shocked," Costa said.

WHEN THE ORIOLES AREN'T HOME

Baseball fans will spend money in the ballpark 81 days a year. But the stadium authority expects to use parts of the building and grounds throughout the year. One of the stadium parking lots has been leased to a tenant who will use it during non-game hours. The stadium authority also expects to rent banquet and party rooms in the stadium and warehouse.

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