Major League Baseball teams are finding the recession is a tough out.
Seven weeks into the season, more than half of baseball's 30 teams, including the Orioles and particularly the Washington Nationals, are seeing smaller crowds than a year ago. The dips come at a time of year when attendance is relatively low anyway because kids are in school and the weather is iffy.
Through 22 home games this season, the O's have drawn an average of 21,833 fans, a decline of 2,579 compared with their first 22 contests of 2008. The 10.6 percent drop by the Orioles, in last place in the American League East, compares with a loss of between 4 percent and 4.5 percent in overall attendance of the major league clubs so far this season.
The Nationals, who are set to meet the Orioles in a three-game series beginning tonight in Washington for this year's first interleague play, are in worse straits.
Washington's average attendance of 20,041 through 19 home games was about 32 percent off last season's pace. The Nats, still trying to win over Washington's fan base in their fifth season, appear to be struggling for a variety of reasons, including a woeful record, the recession, and the novelty of Nationals Park wearing off. The new, publicly financed, $611 million ballpark opened last season to favorable reviews and middling crowds.
"The new stadium smell wore off pretty fast," said Paul Swangard of the University of Oregon's Warsaw Sports Marketing Center, which says two-thirds of the teams that moved into new stadiums since 1999 have seen a significant attendance declines after the first year. The Nats "were already facing the honeymoon-effect factor wearing off and, combine that with a recessionary period, and it's like [piling] on a problem that already exists."
The Nats reduced season ticket prices from last year on 7,500 seats to try to attract more fans. But it is hard to overcome a record of 11-28 - and losers of nine of 10 games - heading into last night's home contest against the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Major League Baseball says it's not alarmed even though Washington has lost two baseball teams in the past.
"It's the second year in a new ballpark and you always see a drop-off," said Robert A. DuPuy, baseball's president and chief operating officer. "They didn't have a particularly good year last year. That didn't help. And they got off to a slow start this year. [Team president] Stan Kasten was quoted as saying if they win some games, attendance will take care of itself. They've got some very good talent."
Kasten did not respond to interview requests.
Barb Angelino, a member of the Nats Fan Club, said that not all rooters are as loyal as she would like. "When things aren't going so well, they tend to disappear. Those are the people I would not want to be married to," she said.
The Orioles and Nationals are geographic rivals but also partners. That's because they share the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network, the regional system that televises both teams' games.
And when it comes to attendance, at least the Nats and Orioles have each other.
The teams averaged more than 38,000 during three games in Washington last June. They averaged more than 31,000 in a series a month earlier at Camden Yards.
The Nats have tried to stoke the rivalry through marketing and by poking fun at the Orioles. Last May, the club sent its mascot and other representatives to distribute Nationals coolers and pocket schedules at the Inner Harbor, just blocks from Oriole Park at Camden Yards.
"It's good for a potential rivalry between the two clubs," Orioles spokesman Greg Bader said.
The Orioles have been creative this season in trying to keep fans coming to Camden Yards. Bader said the team had a record walk up crowd on April 25 of 12,000 fans - they bought tickets just before the game - on the first night of a promotion in which kids 14 and under can attend 10 team-selected games for a total price of $17. The event also was designed to capitalize on Ravens crowds for the NFL draft.
Another promotion allows Orioles fans to attend a game for free as a birthday present. Bader said the club borrowed that one from DisneyWorld.
"I don't think anything has surprised us in terms of where we are [with] attendance," said Andy MacPhail, president of the Orioles. "It's been pretty much what we anticipated and maybe not as bad."
Baltimore, which attracted more than 40,000 fans a game in 2000, averaged 25,000 last season. Washington averaged 29,005 in its first year in the new stadium - less than the team drew when it arrived in the city in 2005 and played at old Robert F. Kennedy Stadium.
Major League Baseball officials say the overall decline of more than 4 percent this season is misleading because the just-opened stadiums of the New York Yankees and New York Mets together hold about 15,000 fewer fans each game than their predecessors.
DuPuy said "clubs have been pretty clever" with promotions. Among his favorites is a discount in which the Minnesota Twins tie certain seat prices for Monday home games to the Dow Jones industrial average. If the Dow closes in the 8,000s on Friday, a ticket for Monday night costs $8.
2008 (through 22 games): 24,412
2009 (22 games): 21,833
Decline of 2,579 fans
2008 (through 19 games): 29,354
2009 (19 games): 20,041
Decline of 9,313 fans
Sources: Major League Baseball and sportsnetwork.com