Like Royals, O's must embrace city

August 20, 2006

I REALIZE THAT SOUNDS LIKE AN ODD THING TO SAY — Those Orioles sure could learn a thing or two from the Kansas City Royals.

I realize that sounds like an odd thing to say - after all, the Royals own the worst record in the majors and would be a middle-of-the-pack Double-A team - but you probably haven't seen their commercials.

In the one area where the Orioles struggle most (hint: It's not pitching), the Royals might as well be punching Hall of Fame tickets.

The Royals' current ad campaign is called "Your team, your town," and as an outsider watching the commercials, you can't help but think that it's exactly what the Orioles need.

The TV spots depict Royals players in front of various Kansas City-area landmarks. They're standing and smiling at the Truman Presidential Museum and Library, at the J.C. Nichols Memorial Fountain in the Plaza, at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. They're eating barbecue and they're riding a roller coaster at Worlds of Fun amusement park.

And each time a new landmark flashes on the screen, the player says the same thing: "This is Kansas City." In fact, those are the only words spoken in the commercials.

The approach might not sound particularly groundbreaking in some markets, but here in Baltimore, the campaign strikes you like a French film without subtitles.

Embracing the community? Celebrating your town? Creating a local identity? What are these? Thoughts of a madman?

When I moved here one year ago, I didn't exactly understand why one in five people wanted to talk about returning the word "Baltimore" to the Orioles' road jerseys. I think I get it now, but changing the stitching to the way it was from 1956 through 1972 still would be only a symbolic gesture. As I'm continually reminded, a local address does not automatically make you a local.

I'll admit that the mentality struck me as odd when I first came to town, but I've come to appreciate the provincialism. The strong sense of community underlies so much of what happens here.

Many fans believe the Orioles started to abandon Baltimore when Edward Bennett Williams took over ownership in 1979.

Broadening the Orioles' reach at the time still makes sense as a sound business plan. Teams are in the business of making money and the league's geography suggested that the wider the Orioles stretched their arms, the more fans they could welcome into their family. It wasn't abandoning Baltimore, rather inviting more people to be a part of the city.

But that's an outdated model and with a target audience that's shrunk over the past couple of years, it's time for the Orioles to embrace their city again.

Williams was wooing the D.C. elite - and it worked; attendance jumped. Years later, Peter Angelos followed suit, trying to stretch the Orioles' brand into D.C., Virginia and Delaware. I'd have a hard time faulting him for that. It just makes smart business sense and is essential for a small-market team.

But the addition of the Washington Nationals changes everything. This season, attendance is down nearly 5,000 a game from a year ago, the worst average since 1988.

The season's pathetic attendance figures illustrate at least two important points:

1) The crowds aren't flocking in from all over the region;

2) They aren't even flocking in from all over Baltimore.

In political campaigns, candidates reach a point where they switch gears, stop chasing the special interest groups and start rallying their base. The Orioles have a large base right here in their backyard; they just choose to ignore it.

When the Ravens arrived in town more than a decade ago, they knew it was futile to sell the team all over the region. They threw a "B" on the helmets and became a part of this city. The Orioles can't say that the market is too small to draw locally when the Ravens barely roll out of bed and fill a stadium to the brim.

The Orioles operate under the assumption that soon they'll be winning games and then both their local base and their commuting fans will converge on the ballpark. They might be right, but shouldn't they wonder about the meantime? Shouldn't they wonder about how they're perceived in the community right now? Shouldn't they remember that their role is bigger than a simple business or even a simple baseball team?

It's a civic institution that assumes a few civic responsibilities.

The Royals commercials end with their season's slogan flashing across the screen: "Your team, your town, your Royals." If you can forget for a second about the Royals' bumbling owner and their blundering players, that slogan should serve as a model for any small-market team struggling in the win column.

"We usually shoot our commercials during spring training in a hotel room or something," said David Witty, the Royals' vice president of communications and marketing. "But last summer, we thought it was time for something different. So in September, we put our guys in their uniforms and took them all around town.

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