Barren bleachers at Camden Yards

Tickets: O's game attendance for the year was down more than 14 percent, but it still beat the average for Major League Baseball.

October 02, 2002|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,SUN STAFF

Mark Pallack has been a good fan.

He dutifully followed the Orioles at dowdy Memorial Stadium. When they moved to Oriole Park at Camden Yards in 1992, he and some buddies went in on a pair of pricey box seats. It was a lot of baseball, and a lot of money, but Pallack thought it necessary to see his team.

Not anymore. The Towson insurance agent said he will bow out of the group next season and simply buy tickets to the games he wants to see.

"All you have to do is go to the scalp-free zone or the box office and buy a ticket for $8," he said.

It's a judgment that fans across the region are making in the face of a new reality at Camden Yards: Tickets that were once as scarce as rainfall in the mid-Atlantic have become as plentiful as ozone.

The number of tickets sold at Oriole Park dropped more than 14 percent in the season that ended Sunday. The total was 28 percent below the peak in the 1990s, when the team set attendance records for Major League Baseball.

Total paid attendance dipped below 3 million for the first time since the stadium opened, other than in the strike-shortened 1994 season. The 2002 per-game average of 33,122 is the lowest in the park's history.

At one game last month against Toronto, the Orioles set a Camden Yards record for a lack of fans: 20,279 tickets were sold, less than half the capacity of 48,190.

10th best draw

The Orioles point out that their totals are still above baseball's average, with a typical game drawing 28,168 last season, down 6 percent from the year before. The team's draw was fourth best in the American League and 10th best among baseball's 30 franchises.

Half of the eight teams competing in the playoffs, which began yesterday, did worse at the gate than the Orioles during the regular season. They are the Atlanta Braves, the Anaheim Angels, the Oakland Athletics and the Minnesota Twins.

"We're quite pleased," said Orioles vice chairman Joe Foss.

As for the dip in sales, he blamed a number of factors: The team posted more losses than wins for the fifth straight season, finishing 67-95. And persistent talk of a strike dampened enthusiasm, especially for group sales. Cal Ripken's retirement last year didn't help matters, either.

"We're watching the trends and the patterns, and the biggest thing we want to do is improve the performance on the field. The quality of performance on the field will bring the numbers back up to where they were," Foss said.

Others aren't so sure. Those who study fan behavior say a winning record is important, but it isn't the only decision-maker. Ticket costs, economic trends, availability of competing entertainment options and the perception of demand also contribute.

The last factor may be the most worrisome for the Orioles: If their tickets are no longer perceived as hard to get, people won't try so hard to get them. Pressure to buy early and lock up seats with a costly season-ticket package lessens as memories of sellouts fade.

"If consumers perceive something to be scarce, it creates demand. And if the perception of scarcity begins to wane, the demand falls off," said Dennis R. Howard, a business professor at the University of Oregon who studies fan behavior.

The "psychology of scarcity" underlies the value of everything from antiques to sports tickets, Howard said. The phenomenon was described by Adam Smith, the 18th-century Scottish economist and philosopher.

Partly, it's a matter of status.

"One way to differentiate yourself is to say, `I have something you don't have,'" he said.

Recapturing the allure might not be as simple as hiring a free agent.

"Team performance does not guarantee continued spikes in attendance. This is an interesting challenge for the industry. A lot of the old truths no longer hold," Howard said.

Among the teams that outdrew the Orioles on a per-game average this year were the Chicago Cubs, who play in a smaller stadium and lost nearly six of every 10 games. The Braves, by contrast, drew fewer than either the Orioles or Cubs despite a relatively new stadium and a sizzling .631 record.

Stadium factor

Another truth that has fallen hard is the "build it and they will come" axiom. After the Orioles opened Camden Yards, they set a record for consecutive sellouts. The record was broken by the next stadium to open, Cleveland's Jacobs Field. Soon teams across the country viewed new parks as their salvation.

Howard said his research shows that teams enjoy a jump when they move into a new stadium, but it lasts only a season or two, regardless of how well the team plays. After the honeymoon, the franchise is back to trying to establish a relationship with its fans, he said.

The Milwaukee Brewers, for example, set a franchise attendance record last season, their first at Miller Park. This year, they sold 30 percent fewer tickets, the largest decline in baseball.

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