Orioles crowd out negative thoughts about attendance

Considering cold, losses, support is `outstanding,' Foss says of drop-off

April 20, 2001|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

Confronting an early-season mix of rough weather and an obviously retooling club unprecedented during the franchise's current ownership, Orioles officials say they are pleased with fan support that has included the three smallest crowds for regularly scheduled games in Camden Yards history.

The Orioles entered yesterday's game against the Cleveland Indians having drawn 306,374, down 52,396 from the same juncture last season. Their 34,042 average ranked the Orioles fourth in the American League behind the Texas Rangers, Seattle Mariners and Cleveland Indians and just ahead of the three-time world champion New York Yankees.

"Our attendance is performing very well considering several factors, especially this month's weather and the disappointing performance of the team in the recent past," said chief operating officer Joe Foss. "Our fan support remains outstanding. I think it's consistent with our expectations."

The Orioles' average decrease of 5,821 is the largest in the American League and fourth largest in the industry. However, the club attributes some of the drop-off to an unattractive four-game series against last-place Tampa Bay and several consecutive nights of sub-50-degree temperatures.

Monday night's game against the Devil Rays drew 24,558, the first time in Camden Yards history that fewer than 30,000 attended a regularly scheduled game. The previous low of 30,166 occurred last Sept. 19 against Oakland. Crowds of 28,679 and 28,801 sat through wind-chilled conditions Tuesday and Wednesday against the Indians.

Club officials say early returns are slightly misleading because of the weather and the team's ticket exchange policy, which allows season-ticket holders to trade in tickets for future games.

At the same time, they believe the numbers speak well for a fan base that has suffered through three consecutive fourth-place seasons before being asked for patience as the club retools with younger players this year.

"We're very comfortable with how the team is drawing," Foss said. "We're thrilled, actually, and I think we'll continue to perform extraordinarily."

Attendance is among the most sensitive issues to an organization that has been well supported even during underachieving seasons. The Orioles have never drawn fewer than 3,295,128 to Camden Yards for a full season since the park's 1992 christening. The Orioles led the American League in total or average attendance for five consecutive years until slipping last season in average and total draw behind the Indians. Since moving to Camden Yards, the club has enjoyed five of the top 16 attended campaigns in the game's history.

The team remains optimistic about drawing 3 million for the 10th consecutive season. It has so far sold about 2.5 million tickets and projects sales of 2.75 million by the All-Star break, according to director of sales Matt Dryer.

Should they maintain their pace after nine home dates, the Orioles would draw 2,757,402. An average of 37,038 for 81 home dates is needed for 3 million attendance.

"It's a little early to draw sweeping conclusions about the entire season," Dryer said. "What the numbers don't tell you is how many fans have exchanged tickets for future games or what we've sold for games against some traditional rivals."

"I think there are a combination of factors involved," Orioles director of public relations Bill Stetka said. "When you get into the summer months and some of the other teams, our attendance is already above where it is now."

The Orioles point to nine home games against the New York Yankees, three against the Mets and six remaining games against the Boston Red Sox as reason for optimism. The club also plans to intensify efforts at attracting walk-up patrons, a tradition that has waned since the new park opened and sellouts became commonplace.

"In the last couple years, even though there has been some ticket availability, I think most local people believe you can't just come down and buy tickets," Stetka said.

Proud of their tradition of fan support, the Orioles cite realities throughout the industry that left 16 of 30 clubs behind last season's attendance pace entering yesterday's games. The Atlanta Braves on Monday suffered the lowest crowd in Turner Field's five-year history and the Indians' record string of 455 consecutive sellouts fell on April 4.

"Part of it is weather. Part of it is Easter weekend, plus it's Easter weekend against Tampa Bay," Stetka said. "Look at some other teams around baseball. When people look at us drawing 24,000 on Monday of Easter weekend, do they see the Braves drew their lowest crowd the same night? And the National League champion Mets drew 18,000 the same night. There has to be some correlation in there."

Foss declined to comment on how attendance projections factor in the team's budget, saying only, "The financial matters of the club are matters for our investors." Foss conceded, however, that the impact of ticket sales is far greater for Major League Baseball than the National Football League.

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