The Orioles are hot, but the fans are cool

Attendance: Some blame the Nationals, but it's too soon to tell.

July 10, 2005|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN STAFF

The Orioles are having their best season on the field in eight years.

But the surprisingly strong start -- which had the team in first place for two months -- has not translated into an attendance bump. In fact, if the average attendance of 32,470 (through Friday) holds, it would be the second-lowest since the team moved to Camden Yards in 1992.

How to explain these seemingly counterintuitive numbers?

For many Bird watchers, the culprit is obvious: the Washington Nationals. Team officials, local business leaders and an economist say the team's new neighbor to the south is sucking away Washington-area baseball lovers, who used to make up as much as a quarter of the Orioles' fan base.

But another economist and baseball analysts say that the early numbers are a red herring and that any conclusions about one team's impact on another can't be reached for years.

Questions about the Nationals' influence are of great interest to city leaders, because permanently lowered attendance could cost downtown businesses millions of dollars a year, economic development officials say.

Anirban Basu, a Baltimore economic consultant, said the club is probably losing 3,000 to 5,000 fans a game to the Nationals, a number he figured could increase when Washington gets a new stadium in three years.

"Attendance should be up substantially," he said. "But instead it's down [to] around 30,000 a game. I think the difference is explainable by the Nationals."

Donald Fry, executive director of the Greater Baltimore Committee, formed decades ago to boost the city's economy, said he can't see any other reason for the stagnant attendance. "The Orioles are doing what people want them to do," he said. "The only thing that's new is the Nationals."

Orioles officials say that the competition's long-term impact is hard to predict but add that much of this year's attendance hit has come from lost season-ticket sales to the Washington area.

"I don't think it's stretching too much to say that without the Nationals, you could add 20 to 25 percent to our total right now," said Orioles spokesman Bill Stetka.

Too early to tell

Others say it's too early to place the blame for sluggish attendance on the Nationals. They point out that crowds were up in June, when fans started to believe that the team might be a true pennant contender. And, they add, first-half numbers were dragged down by April and May homestands against pedestrian opponents such as Tampa Bay, Kansas City, Seattle and Detroit.

"I think it's very hard over half a season to discern the impact," said Andrew Zimbalist, an economist at Smith College who studies the business of sports. "If the Orioles continue to play competitive baseball, they have a market."

Zimbalist said that if the Nationals aren't killing the Orioles now, when the new club is a novelty and a surprise contender, the death blow will never come.

"You can argue that having two competitive teams in the area actually builds the general baseball culture," he said. "I think you have two very healthy franchises there."

Joe Sheehan, managing editor of, agreed and said lagging attendance in Baltimore can be attributed to the team's run of seven consecutive losing seasons.

"You generally get the bounce the year after you succeed," Sheehan said. "If the Nationals really are impacting the Orioles, it will take five, maybe 10 years to know it. You'd have to see both teams in an up cycle and a down cycle."

Economists are reluctant to attribute widespread economic impact to sports teams or downtown stadiums. And those contacted for this article said it was too early to quantify any impact the Nationals might be having on Baltimore business.

Local economy

But some say Camden Yards is unquestionably a key component of the city's tourist culture. A city-commissioned study from the 1990s found that ballpark crowds spent $14 million at area businesses for every game.

"The wonderful thing about Camden Yards is that it's one of the few things that can generate economic impact on weekdays," Basu said. "If that is reduced, it could be very impactful on the whole downtown."

Fry said he hasn't heard direct complaints of reduced business but said, "I think it's a logical extension that there is some impact."

Neighboring bars and restaurants rely most heavily on ballpark runoff, but the effects are felt as far away as the National Aquarium, where attendance runs 6 percent to 8 percent higher on game days.

"I would think with the Orioles in first place, business would be through the roof," said Ron Furman, owner of Max's Taphouse, a popular destination for pregame drinks. "But instead, we're doing just a little better. I believe the new team is having an impact. But how much, I don't know."

Down the street at Pickles Pub, owner Andy Yefko said, "We haven't seen any effects of it at all."

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