The Orioles are winning, attendance is up, but challenges remain

There's not much that's more fun than being at Oriole Park at Camden Yards when the stadium is packed, the Orioles are winning and the crowd is rocking. Such sights and sounds have been few and far between in recent years, with the stadium only selling out for a few marquee days like Opening Day and maybe weekend series' against Boston and New York. With the Orioles having been a bad baseball team for nearly a decade and a half, even when the stadium does fill, the O's have tended not to win, and those teams' fanbases have been gloating and rubbing in their success.

Many people, including myself, have written that when the team starts winning, the stadium will start to fill up again. While the Orioles' attendance is up by an average of nearly 5,000 fans per game over last year, which is great, this still doesn't tell the whole story, because there's the old question of the Tuesday mid-week series against a crappy team. This was in evidence last night, with a paid attendance of 15,433 there to witness the comeback and extra-innings drama against the Mariners.

As recently as 2001, the O's were drawing over 3 million fans a year. A few years later, in the 2005 season that started off so promising, the O's were still averaging over 30,000 fans per home game, and they have been below 2 million in attendance since 2008. Not much of a surprise that attendance has declined over 14 straight losing seasons. People have found other things to do with their time and money, and why shouldn't they have? Fandom is not a suicide pact. The Orioles have done very little over that stretch of time to engender the kind of weird dedication that the Chicago Cubs maintain even when they are terrible - that team, for instance, is on pace to top 3 million fans while winning 64 games.

Attendance being up by nearly 5,000 fans a game is an extra 400,000 over the course of the season. That's not a bad rebound for a suddenly-contending team with a fanbase skeptical that things could really improve. Yet this isn't enough for some. Across the blogosphere and talk radio circuit, and even occasionally in the mainstream media, there's condemnation of fans. "You wanted to see a winner," they say, "and now there's a winner, so why aren't you at the Yard?"

"Pack the Yard!" shout some. "Take the oath!" say others. (I love the Orioles, but oath, really?) A number, though not all, of the people saying these things have paychecks signed in one way or another by Peter Angelos, though I've seen at least one person who, while repeatedly swearing that Angelos will never receive another dime, wonders why fans aren't showing up.

Why is the blame on the fans here? If you're the Orioles, you can't just say, "Here's a winning baseball team - now show up, you ingrates, and count yourselves fortunate you get to." (That would be the Yankees or Red Sox message.)

The landscape has changed since the last time the Orioles had a full winning season. Baltimore isn't a one-sport town any more. The Ravens are here, and like it or not, they've been successful over the past decade and the Orioles haven't. They get the ink, the air time, and the pixels of local sports media. Like it or not (and I sure don't), the Nationals have set up shop not far away as well and have sucked some fans from the outer orbits of the Orioles territory into their own place.

A professor of mine would always say, "The challenge is in reaching an audience that is increasingly fragmented and diverse." He was talking about media in politics, but it's the same challenge for a sports team that's struggled for over a decade. People are doing other things with their lives. They are busy. They may have more demanding jobs. They have their routine they are settled in. The Orioles have fallen into the periphery and these folks need a nudge beyond just winning baseball to come to the stadium - or show up more often each season.

A fine example of this is my own family. My folks want to find a game where we all (including my sister and I) can take my grandmother to an O's game. Juggling everyone's work schedules and social lives against the O's schedule of home dates leaves exactly one day in August where we can all go to the game and not have anyone left out. Had the Orioles been good for a long time, perhaps they move up in people's social schedules, but why should we expect this to have changed after four winning months against fourteen losing years?

Another thing to consider is that going to a baseball game costs some money, and we are still in uncertain economic times. If a family of four wants to think about going to the game, you're probably looking at a bare minimum of $100, if you can get the cheapest tickets and limit yourselves to $10 a person for food and drink - which you probably can't. So going to an O's game is a specially budgeted item, probably. This demographic can't just wake up one morning and decide to go to an Orioles game.

Compound these issues with cost and logistics and it's not much wonder that attendance has increased, but not as fast as some people would like. Four months of winning baseball is worth 5,000 fans per game so far, which is great, even if it still leaves you in a sparse crowd of 15,000 as the O's take on Seattle on a Tuesday night and try to keep chasing down the Yankees.

That's not enough for some to stop the criticism. Really, it shouldn't be enough for the Orioles. However, rather than blame the people who aren't showing up, why not put some of the burden on the Orioles to give these people a reason to show up?

Next time, I'll be tackling some of the ways that I think the O's could be harnessing social media, and more traditional promotions, to lure more fans out to the ballpark.

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