Orioles facing fight for fans and corporate sponsors

With 2 teams in region, Baltimore must compete for loyalty and revenue

Marketing

Baseball Returns To Washington

September 30, 2004|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

As the official announcements came down yesterday that Washington had been picked as the new home for the Montreal Expos, the Orioles went about their business at Camden Yards, keeping their emotions in check.

There were no fighting words, not even from owner Peter G. Angelos, but everyone knows they've got their work cut out for them now. Life is about to change dramatically with a new team playing 35 miles down the road at RFK Stadium.

Since the Washington Senators left town to become the Texas Rangers after the 1971 season, the Orioles have enjoyed this vast market all to themselves. Barring an unforeseen collapse in the relocation process, it's about to become a two-team market again.

"One would be hard pressed to believe the Orioles will ever be able to maintain the level of interest they've enjoyed for the last 30 years," said Marc Ganis, president of Sportscorp, a Chicago-based consulting firm. "Not with a fresh, new team placed right in the heart of its population area."

Major League Baseball has been negotiating a compensation package with the Orioles, and Ganis said this is a critical step for a 50-year-old franchise as it looks to protect its financial future.

Little wonder Angelos has been driving such a hard bargain.

"This will determine whether the Orioles will have the resources to compete with the Yankees and Red Sox or whether they're relegated to second-tier status," Ganis said.

The Orioles say they will lose 30 percent of their revenue with a new team in Washington. Baseball can try to soften that blow by offering revenue guarantees. But the team's marketing department is going to face serious challenges.

When Washington Mayor Anthony A. Williams slipped on that red cap with the white W yesterday, the Orioles knew they were competing for loyalties but kept their strategy close to the vest.

"It's really premature to have that discussion," said Orioles executive director for communications Spiro Alafassos. "Once we know the outcome of the Expos' situation, I'm sure both the league and ownership will tell us what the rules of engagement are, and then we'll formulate a marketing plan to present to ownership."

The Orioles have worked hard to cultivate their Washington fan base. They took the word Baltimore off their uniforms after the 1972 season. They no longer put the letters "BAL" on the scoreboard, replacing them with "O's."

Each year, the team has held a D.C. FanFest during the middle of the summer, and they have an official Orioles store on 17th Street in Northwest Washington. Will the Orioles continue those efforts?

George McSwain, 29, a season-ticket holder from North East in Cecil County, brought a sign to yesterday's doubleheader at Camden Yards that said, "Thank you MLB for trying to ruin the O's. Expos who?"

McSwain said he's worried that the Orioles will lose money, prompting Angelos to sell the team to a buyer who could move them out of town.

"I'm irate about it," McSwain said. "My dad thinks it's funny. He quit coming here when the strike happened [in 1994]. Now he said he might go down to see the D.C. team. We argued about it on the phone all last night."

McSwain and his 4-year-old son, Cole, were wearing Orioles gear from head to toe. Asked if they would go to Washington to see the new team, he said: "Philly is right down the road, and I won't go there. I'll only go to D.C. if the Orioles are there."

But Shelton Adams, who lives in Washington and has been attending Orioles games since 1983, said he's not sure where he'll go to watch baseball next year. "It's still early," he said, "but I am leaning to the Washington Expos or the Washington Senators, Part III."

It's the fans on the fence who must concern the Orioles the most. That and the competition for sponsorship money from corporations.

Robert Tuchman, president of TSE Sports and Entertainment, a New York sports and entertainment marketing firm, said corporations typically set aside a budget for advertising in the Mid-Atlantic region.

"That's obviously why the Orioles don't want these guys anywhere near them," Tuchman said. "Now they'll be in a direct competition for the same dollars, because a lot of companies - except maybe the big boys like Anheuser Busch - are not putting down money in the same market."

Baseball already has four two-team markets: New York, Chicago, Los Angeles/Anaheim and San Francisco/Oakland.

Elrod Hendricks, the Orioles' longtime bullpen coach, remembers the last time this area had two teams. He was a catcher with the Orioles, from 1968 to 1971, when the Senators were still in Washington.

"I have mixed feelings" about Washington getting a team, Hendricks said. "That's just the selfish side of it. I enjoy the [D.C.] fans. ...

"Hopefully, that fan base will remain for the city. They brought in a lot of revenue, hotels, restaurants downtown. Hopefully, people will continue to come; then again, hopefully we can put a product on the field that will keep their interest."

Sun staff writers Jeff Zrebiec and Roch Kubatko contributed to this article.

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