O's slump strikes at ticket sales

Oriole Park attendance off to worst start since strike-marred 1995

Team's play, prices cited

O's sales off 7 percent, but still 3rd best overall

June 04, 1999|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,SUN STAFF

Squeezed by poor play and high ticket prices, attendance at Orioles games is off to its worst start since the team moved to Camden Yards, except for the strike-scarred spring of 1995.

The team remains one of the best sellers in baseball, but its average home attendance has fallen to third, behind the Cleveland Indians, who are red hot, and the Colorado Rockies, who play in a bigger stadium.

The obvious culprit: a .385 win percentage (20-32) that has landed the Orioles with a thud in the basement of the American League East. But fans cite other factors as well, such as the appearance on the field of a large number of new, and not necessarily friendly, players and a wearing off of the newness of Camden Yards, which opened in 1992.

And there's also cost. Orioles tickets are the fifth-costliest in baseball this season. The price of food and drinks approaches that of a gourmet restaurant.

Through the first 24 home games, the Orioles have reported 981,823 tickets sold -- a figure that does not include no-shows, a group that some think is also growing. The sales total is more than 7 percent off the pace set last year, when the team, coming off postseason play the fall before, posted its best-attended start. Across the majors, baseball attendance is up nearly 2 percent this season.

There have been only two Orioles sell outs -- Opening Day and a Saturday afternoon game on May 22 against Texas -- for the team that set a then-major-league record in 1992 and 1993 by stringing together 65 consecutive full-capacity games.

Only 1995 had a worse attendance start, when all of baseball was recovering from an ugly strike and many fans were swearing off the game for life. The team's best-selling full season was 1997.

Longtime season-ticket holder Evans Paull said he has had a harder time getting rid of tickets his group buys and shares. A few members have dropped out and he expects more turnover for next year.

"If the Orioles are going to be fielding a subpar team, I wish it was a young, subpar team with an expectation of getting better. This team is old and appears to be declining," said Paull, of Baltimore.

He said he was surprised to recently receive a letter from the Orioles offering tickets to games he thought were generally sold out far in advance, such as the Boston Red Sox in June and a Yankees series in September.

Mike Pivar, a partial-season ticket plan owner, said: "The prices are a big thing."

He still goes because he loves baseball and the Orioles. But he tries to eat before going, to cut down on spending.

"It's just not as much fun as it used to be," said Pivar, of Union Bridge.

Orioles spokesman John Maroon said the team has stepped up its marketing to try to bring in more fans, and expects the quality of play to improve. Preseason sales were a strong 3 million, but walk-up sales to fans who decide to come at the last minute have been lower than usual.

"All in all, I don't think we're doing too badly given the poor performance of the team," Maroon said. "When the team gets off to a slow start, you are going to lose some of that walk-up business."

Part of the trouble, he said, is an expectation of success spawned by the team's strong showings in 1996 and 1997, when the Orioles advanced to the AL Championship Series each season. Fans have grown accustomed to seeing a winner.

He discounted the role of ticket prices, which have more than doubled since 1992 and now average $19.82, not including pricey club and skybox seats (Orioles tickets range from $7 for standing-room-only to $30 for a box seat). They remain cheaper on a per-game basis than tickets to professional football, basketball or hockey, Maroon noted.

The team escorted a record 70,000 people through Oriole Park in tours last year, suggesting interest in the stadium remains strong, he said.

Walk-up sales should improve with the end of the school year and the team will resume its leadership of AL attendance, he said. He didn't have figures on turnout at games, but doesn't think significant numbers of ticket holders are staying away.

The Orioles head into June with their worst record since moving to the new stadium. But not by much: In 1993, the team was in sixth place with a .420 win percentage at this point in the season. Ticket sales, however, were the best they had ever been and were exceeded only by last season's start.

Oriole Park was in its second season in 1993. Now, it is in its eighth.

Andrew Zimbalist, a Smith College economics professor and author of "Baseball and Billions," said the Orioles seem to be following a familiar pattern. Teams getting new, publicly funded stadiums enjoy both a "novelty appeal" to fans and an immediate increase in revenues from ticket sales, luxury seating and concessions that enable the team to afford better players.

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