Turnstiles, O's finances have spins of their own

August 29, 2006|By RICK MAESE

They're brimming with optimism down at the warehouse these days - and with good reason. Nick Markakis is playing great, the young pitchers are showing flashes of brilliance and the Orioles as a whole sure look like an improved product over the group of players that gathered in Fort Lauderdale six months ago.

The hope, of course, isn't tied to this season. The Orioles head into the final month looking like a lock for fourth place in the American League East. The optimism is all about what lies down the road. And it all makes me wonder what the real consequences of the 2006 season will be - not just on the field, but in the books.

The empty seats at Camden Yards continue to illustrate not just how far the franchise has fallen, but how the team is regarded among the area's baseball fans. Through 70 home games, attendance is down nearly 6,000 a game. There are 11 more home dates in the season's final month, and the Orioles are almost assured of finishing the year with the biggest attendance drop-off in franchise history. About 450,000 fewer fans will have bought tickets to games this season.

You assume it all equates to big dollars. Fans think they're sending a message up to the owner's box, in effect saying, "We ain't paying until our O's are winning!"

But it just doesn't ring true. The huge attendance hit will most likely have minimal impact on the team (and we already know that no one in the warehouse is heeding any sort of warning).

To illustrate this, we turn to the numbers - or as close as we can get. The Orioles don't need to open their books, which allows them to make outrageous claims (the footnote here would send you to owner Peter Angelos' unfounded comments earlier this spring that the Orioles lost $15 million last year).

The only peek we get at the Orioles' finances is through the Maryland Stadium Authority, the team's landlord at Camden Yards. The Orioles' rent is tied directly to their revenues, which leads us to think that not everything is doom and gloom.

For the fiscal year that ended June 30, the Orioles paid $7.1 million in rent, the highest figure ever generated and about $300,000 more than the stadium authority had even anticipated. This is not all ticket sales. In fact, just like the team, the stadium authority depends on the ticket sales for just a fraction of its total returns.

The Orioles' rent is a complicated formula that draws from several sources of revenue, which includes 25 percent of ballpark advertising, 50 percent of parking, 7.5 percent of concession revenues and 7 percent of ticket sales. The lease ensures that all the eggs aren't piled too high in one basket.

The Orioles operate in a similar way, knowing they can't count solely on ticket sales as a source of revenue.

"Try looking at it like your own portfolio," says Alison Asti, executive director of the stadium authority. "If one area is down, you can count on another being up, so at the end, you have a balanced portfolio."

It's not a perfect reflection, but it certainly indicates that despite the win-loss record and despite the sagging attendance figures, plenty of money is still flowing into the warehouse. (The rent figures cover the last fiscal year, which includes the horrid final three months of the 2005 season and the uneventful first three months of the current season.)

(It's difficult to say just what the sagging attendance has meant to the bigger community. The stadium authority last did an economic impact study on the baseball team when Camden Yards first opened. Plans are under way for a second study in the coming year.)

The real damage might be seen down the road. If the Orioles actually are able to put a winning product on the field at some point, it will surely take a while before the disenfranchised fan base trusts them enough to return to the ballpark.

Of course, there are plenty of expenses, and we don't know exactly what those are - though it's worth noting that the Orioles actually cut player payroll from 2005 to 2006.

Fans can view all of this in one of two ways. For starters, it's probably humbling knowing how hard it is to actually affect the pocketbooks of a multi-armed beast that's cashing so many big corporate checks that it hardly notices you didn't spend $30 to bring your kid to the ballpark.

But it also should limit the excuses team owners and operators use to justify fourth-place finishes. And with added Mid-Atlantic Sports Network money looming on the horizon, there's no reason the Orioles shouldn't be more competitive next year.

Fans can still send a symbolic no-confidence vote. They can avoid the ballpark all season long. They can turn off their televisions. They can show up for the planned fan protest next month. But they shouldn't fool themselves into thinking their actions are setting off alarm bells in the warehouse.

This is a finicky franchise that plays with your emotions. It might have seemed hopeless not too long ago, but the final four weeks of the regular season are all about building optimism, with a spotlight shining especially bright on the team's young starters.

Fans will look for their optimism in the youthful talent that's suddenly showing off its talent more than its youth. And the front office should be able to take comfort knowing it is surviving what sure feels like one of the biggest fan backlashes the franchise has ever felt.


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