Losing fans, O's have to do more than win

April 28, 2006|By RICK MAESE

Announce the signing of Melvin Mora and open the gates at Camden Yards. Watch them return in droves, from D.C., from Virginia, from Frederick and from Dundalk.

More Mora equals more fans, right?

That's probably not perfect math, but it's at least one theory that's floating out there. It's nowhere near the one to which Peter Angelos subscribes. The Orioles' owner seems to think that fans are staying away from the park because the team has a difficult time winning.

In sports, nine times out of 10, it is that simple. Winning teams draw crowds; losing ones don't. Here in Baltimore, it's more complex

These Orioles are a special team (I decided they're special when I saw Javy Lopez hit a ball over the fence during the team's last homestand and watched him get called out for passing a teammate on the base paths).

The problem isn't simple, and neither is the solution. As tough as it was to drive fans away, team officials face a bigger challenge than they realize in enticing them back.

Can it be as simple as winning? I posted a question last week on my Sun blog, asking fans why they're avoiding the ballpark. Within just a couple of hours, I'd received more than 100 responses both on the blog and in my inbox.

Altogether, fans listed 21 different reasons they're staying away from Camden Yards this year. Sure, winning was one of them - but can you imagine there being 20 other reasons not to catch a ballgame?

The explanations range from the practical (gas prices, uncertain weather) to the frustrated (questionable offseason moves, lingering effects from last season) to the inane (print "Baltimore" across the road jerseys and give Mora an extension immediately).

But the sheer volume and variety speaks to something, a simple idea proposed over and over in several media, most recently in Malcolm Gladwell's book The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference.

The Seattle Mariners come to town tonight to begin a three-game series against the Orioles. What you won't see are fans filling every seat of the stadium. What you will see are the cumulative effects of nearly a decade's worth of frustrations. Taken individually, the consequences are minimal. We're at the point, though, where fans take them as a whole.

By now, they've come together, like thousands of fingers forming a single fist.

The ushers are rude - a finger. The team doesn't treat Brooks Robinson well enough - a finger. The media are negative, there are no homegrown products, tickets are too expensive - all fingers, each helping form a mighty fist that's slugging the team and its owner right in the pocketbook.

From 1997 until last season, the team's attendance gradually dropped a total of 30 percent. Through 13 home dates this year, attendance is down 19.5 percent from the same time one year ago. To put that in perspective, only two other teams in baseball have suffered worse losses at the gates: the Mariners (20 percent) and the Florida Marlins (50 percent).

You want to point to the D.C. effect? Studies have estimated that anywhere from 13 to 25 percent of fans at Camden Yards have come to town from D.C. or Northern Virginia. Logic suggests the Orioles would lose a few thousand fans to the Washington Nationals nightly.

But the big hit would've come last year, not this season. In fact, the Orioles drew more a season ago than they managed in 2003. And you can't attribute this year's woes to the Nationals' increased figures. The Nationals should be even more worried than the Orioles. They barely checked into the hotel before that honeymoon ended.

Washington's season-ticket sales are down more than 25 percent from the inaugural season, and its average attendance thus far is down nearly 19 percent.

But maybe Angelos is right, and maybe winning a few games wipes away all the other reasons. That could be the scariest possibility of all.

Talk of a team moving to D.C. prompted many to assume that Angelos would be forced to spend more, the competition goading him to finally pay for better players.

The team's payroll is actually down this year. In fact, while the rest of baseball continues to spend more on salaries, the Orioles carry a payroll that's actually smaller than it was in 2000. (A comparison: The Yankees' payroll has more than doubled in that time.)

If winning costs money - and it usually does - this is a team that's cutting coupons for Cadillacs.

The guess here is that counting on a winning ballclub isn't the wisest way to lure fans back to the ballpark.

If you want them back, think about how you lost them. And then start addressing each of the little things. Signing Mora is a step. But it's just one.

Fans feel disconnected from a franchise they love. It's not just the wins. They want to feel like the franchise loves them back.

rick.maese@baltsun.com

Read Rick Maese's blog at baltimoresun.com/maeseblog.

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