Study: O's can survive D.C. club

Survey says impact is overstated by team, but O's fault findings

May 31, 2001|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

ROSSLYN, Va. - The region can support a second major-league baseball team without harming the Orioles' fan base, concludes a study released yesterday by a group backing a new franchise.

The $175,000 report, paid for by the Virginia Baseball Stadium Authority, contradicts long-stated claims by Orioles management that more than a quarter of their fans come from Washington and its suburbs. The study says a new franchise would do little to harm the Orioles economically.

"It begins to chip away at the myth that a franchise in Northern Virginia or Washington is going to hurt the Orioles in attendance, revenue, media support or corporate sponsors," said William Collins, chairman of the Virginia Baseball Club investor group. "It puts to bed that issue."

What analysts found was that the Orioles draw 13 percent of their fans from Montgomery and Prince George's counties, the District of Columbia and Northern Virginia.

"This is not an opinion. This is market research," said Len Perna, director of the project. "Instead of taking the Orioles' word for it, we asked the Orioles' customers."

But Orioles spokesman Bill Stetka said the team stands by its 25 percent attendance estimate.

"We have our own internal studies and did our own exit polling last September. In September alone, we had more than 22 percent of the people coming from the same areas they are suggesting," said Stetka, noting that the Orioles have not seen the study.

In addition, the club is able to track fans through season-ticket applications, Ticketmaster charges, phone charges and sales and Orioles stores.

"I don't think this changes anything," Stetka said. "I still think - and it's what Peter [Angelos, Orioles owner] thinks, it's what [baseball commissioner] Bud Selig thinks, it's what the owners think - that this market can successfully support one team."

However, backers of a baseball franchise for Northern Virginia say the study shows the region has two distinct baseball markets driven in large part by transportation: Baltimore and its western and northern suburbs and the communities nearest to Washington.

Among the findings:

A team in Northern Virginia would reduce Orioles attendance on average by 932.

Fifty-eight percent of residents of the Washington metro area who attend Orioles games do so just once or twice a season.

Only 37 percent of Washington metro residents who attend Orioles games consider themselves fans of the team. The rest are generic baseball fans or people on family or business outings.

Fifteen percent of Orioles attendance comes from Pennsylvania, Delaware, New York and New Jersey; 7 percent comes from Northern Virginia.

The Orioles have "an extensive waiting list" - more than 60 companies - for luxury boxes.

Even with a Northern Virginia team, the Orioles' media revenue would increase 4-8 percent annually.

Stetka, the Orioles' spokesman, says those tidbits are interesting but don't address an overriding truth, that in regions with two teams, one is healthier financially than the other.

"Even New York, with six times the population base that we have here, has yet to have both teams draw 3 million fans in the same season," he said.

A group of Washington civic and business leaders have also sought a major-league franchise that would play downtown. While insisting that the 121-page study is not meant to diminish that effort, the Virginia group noted the harm to the Orioles increases as the distance between a new ballpark and Camden Yards shrinks.

The study of the fan base had three components: interviews with 1,210 fans outside Camden Yards last August; a telephone survey of 900 people who infrequently attend games; and a telephone survey of 1,738 adults who did not attend any games last year.

It was conducted by three firms, all with ties to Major League Baseball or individual teams. Penn, Schoen and Berland Associates conducted the field and telephone interviews. The Goal Group, led by Perna, a former Detroit Tigers executive, talked to 80 Orioles corporate sponsors to determine if they would switch allegiances to a Washington-area team or split their marketing budget between two teams. Kegan Media Appraisals was brought on board to evaluate whether a second team would damage the Orioles' broadcast rights.

Their conclusion, said Collins, was unanimous.

"We can now say with great certainty and without fear of factual contradiction that the total impact on the Baltimore Orioles of a relocated franchise situated in Northern Virginia would be infinitesimal - so small that any sales organization should be able to replace those fans and revenues before the next season starts."

The Northern Virginia group is pegging its hopes for a team on the growing feeling in baseball that financially ailing teams - such as the Montreal Expos, Minnesota Twins, Tampa Bay Devil Rays and Florida Marlins - should be bought and eliminated or relocated.

Selig would not comment on the study because his office had not yet received a copy. Several major-league teams also declined comment because they had not seen the study. Collins said copies were sent to Selig and all of the owners yesterday morning.

While Collins believes his investor group has "cleared the last remaining hurdle" to acquiring a team, Stetka said nothing has changed. "I would think the owners have as much information as they need to make a decision," he said.

The Washington metro area has been without a major-league team since the end of the 1971 season, when the franchise moved to Texas and became the Rangers. The original Senators played in Washington from 1901 to 1960 and then moved to Minnesota and became the Twins.

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