Oriole Park at Camden Yards will begin the 2011 baseball season with a new concessionaire, wider seats in many areas and more casual seating options as part of a campaign to coax fans from in front of their high-definition television sets and back into the downtown ballpark.
The Orioles are also exploring plans to eliminate up to 12 corporate skyboxes along the left and right field lines and replace them with larger group-sales venues and party suites offering a greater variety of seating and entertainment arrangements.
The changes were disclosed Tuesday as the Maryland Stadium Authority is completing the final phase of seat replacement in the Oriole Park seating bowl. Last year, all seats in the lower level, from foul pole to foul pole, were replaced. The work is to conclude this off-season, with the stadium authority repairing concrete and replacing seats in the lower-level outfield, the club level and the upper deck.
Stadium authority members gave the green light to the changes, which include the creation of "viewing platforms" on the club level, with bistro tables, bar stools and a "drink rail" down the left field and right field lines. Seat widths will increase on the club level and upper deck from 18 inches to 22 inches, and new railings will be installed to improve sightlines in some locations.
"This new style of casual seating in select areas will enhance the experience of Oriole Park for fans looking for a more social atmosphere," said Orioles spokesman Greg Bader. "These additions, along with new seats throughout the ballpark, are designed to make our fans more comfortable while preserving the Camden Yards aesthetic."
While seating options will increase, the total number of actual seats at Oriole Park will drop by more than 2,300, from 48,290 to 45,971. The change will be the first major reduction in seats at the ballpark since it opened to great acclaim in 1992 and will put its capacity more in line with that of newer parks, which have between 39,000 and 44,000 seats.
The number of corporate suites on the club level would potentially drop from 72 skyboxes plus three party suites in 1992 to fewer than 50 in 2011, a response to the disappearance of some corporations in Baltimore and a corresponding drop in demand for corporate skyboxes.
The Maryland Stadium Authority is expected to consider the skybox proposals as early as December. Final approval for any changes to Oriole Park's seating bowl must also be approved by the state Board of Public Works, which is scheduled to consider the changes starting on Nov. 17.
The Orioles also announced today an agreement with Delaware North Corp. of Buffalo, N.Y. to serve as the ballpark's exclusive concessionaire.
The new concessionaire will replace Aramark Corp., which had served the Baltimore ballpark since it opened in 1992. The Orioles announced last month that the team would sever its relationship with Aramark, one of the nation's largest food service operators.
Delaware North is the concessionaire at Target Field in Minneapolis and at the Jets' and Giants' new home in the Meadowlands, among other parks. Its Baltimore contract is to run through the end of the Orioles' lease at Camden Yards, which expires at the conclusion of the 2021 season.
In September, Aramark told Maryland regulators that it might lay off more than 600 employees if its food and retail service contract with the Orioles was not renewed. The Orioles said Aramark workers probably would be offered jobs by a new concessionaire.
As part of its contract, Delaware North is expected to invest $11 million for new equipment and furnishings and introduce new dining concepts, such as kitchens that will allow patrons to watch as their food is prepared.
Orioles and stadium authority representatives say the physical changes, expected to cost about $1.5 million, are a response to trends affecting teams throughout Major League Baseball. They include the recent construction of smaller stadiums, a reduced demand for corporate suites as a result of the recession, and the advent of large-screen TV and home theaters with high-quality sound and sharp pictures, and a decline in attendance over the years.
They say the changes will help attract people who might otherwise choose to watch the Orioles on television. Attendance at Orioles games in 2010 was 1.73 million people, down from an all-time high of 3.71 million in 1997. The impact on ticket prices has not been disclosed.
A major goal is to improve the fans' experience and increase opportunities for socializing without changing what made Oriole Park so popular in the first place, said Janet Marie Smith, the Orioles' vice president of planning and development.