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The burden of increasing attendance falls to the Orioles

It was a nice Sunday afternoon in August, but the empty seats behind Tommy Hunter show that plus a winning Orioles team isn't enough to fill Camden Yards. Mandatory Credit: Joy R. Absalon-US PRESSWIRE
It was a nice Sunday afternoon in August, but the empty seats behind Tommy Hunter show that plus a winning Orioles team isn't enough to fill Camden Yards. Mandatory Credit: Joy R. Absalon-US PRESSWIRE

Last week, I wrote about some of the challenges facing the Orioles with regards to their attendance. The four-game weekend series against Kansas City has offered some more proof of these challenges. Take out the 40,000+ paid attendance for Eddie Murray statue night - of whom many may have been planning only to collect the statue and leave even without considering the rain - and none of the rest of the games were above 22,000. This was disappointing.

On top of this, providing more ammunition for those who'd rather blame the fans and people of Baltimore than the team that's holding the tickets, a Ravens public practice that was held Sunday in Annapolis drew 20,335 fans when the O's game that same afternoon drew 20,935 fans. That should certainly be embarrassing for the Orioles, but I ask again, why criticize the fans for this?

While I would never pick anything to do with the Ravens over a contending Orioles team, I can understand why some would choose to attend the event that is free to the public, and scarce. Sunday's open practice by the Ravens was one of only three public training camp practices that will be held this year. No surprise that would be preferable to a game against the Royals - with Tommy Hunter facing Bruce Chen, not exactly a marquee matchup - that was one of 81 home games for the O's.

What I don't get are those people who are blaming the fans for not coming to Orioles games. Shouldn't the blame rest with the Orioles for not getting fans to come to their games? If anyone out there thinks that they are doing everything they possibly could to get fans out to the stadium, that person is stuck thinking inside the same box with the Orioles ticketing department themselves.

In the end, it comes down to economics. The Orioles are in control of a supply of a product that exceeds the demand for that product. The excess inventory is not something that can be stored against the day that demand has increased. An empty seat in a game that's already taken place is gone. That's potential revenue lost that will never come back. The easiest way to increase quantity demanded of a good is to lower the price. So why don't they?

Before I get any further, I should say that I am by no means an economist. I took a couple of classes in getting a bachelor's degree in an unrelated area and I get the basic concepts if not every single possible permutation and application.

Something the Orioles have done right in recent years is an attempt to grow demand with some more intangible factors. Oriole Park at Camden Yards is a great place to go see a baseball game, period. The O's and the Maryland Stadium Authority have been engaged in fairly regular renovations to keep that retro look with modern conveniences that Camden Yards pioneered to begin with. The roof top bar in center field, the new flag court, and the open area where the Legends statues will be placed are all strong improvements for the season.

On top of this, the O's have brought in the new concessions provider in recent years and have made a wide variety of food items available beyond the traditional hot dogs, peanuts, pretzels, beer and soda. The Crab Mac 'n' Cheese Dog from the Stuggy's stand on Eutaw Street is a particular favorite for many this year.

The 2012 season is also the first in nearly a decade and a half where the quality of the team on the field might increase demand for tickets. People - other than Cubs fans - want to go see a winner, and are more likely to want to see a winner than a loser. The Orioles are winning so far this season and that has made a difference. Last year's average attendance was 21,672. This year's was 25,396 through 58 home games. That's a nice increase, but it still means many games are below 50% capacity in Camden Yards. Perhaps if they finish this season strong, upgrade in the offseason and continue to do this in 2013, that will grow demand still more. In the meantime, there is a lot of room to play with to fill the stadium.

Giveaway days and discount days aren't bad, but they aren't the whole answer. Wei-Yin Chen t-shirt night, coinciding with the major league debut of Manny Machado, on a Thursday night in August, drew 21,226 fans. I don't blame people who had other things going on, but it's a bummer.

Which brings us back to the big thing: ticket price. Make it cost less to go to an Orioles game and more people will want to go. I assume that people with more degrees than me are involved in the process of setting prices for an entire season. However, I suspect more of their considerations involve, "How do we make money off attendance in the low 20,000s?" rather than "How do we get attendance back up to 30,000?" The Orioles being good out of nowhere probably took more than just the fans by surprise.

The price for this year is the price, and I get that. Season ticket sales, group sales, promotions and whatever have all been well-established, and that's fine. What I don't get is why the O's seem to have no interest in moving blocks of unsold tickets. Why not try something - anything at all - beyond just sitting back and waiting to see who is going to decide to go to an O's game?

This is 2012! Facebook and Twitter are out there. The Orioles have over 391,000 likes on Facebook and they have nearly 68,000 Twitter followers. They own a TV network, MASN, which maintains a text service that is chiefly propaganda but could be more. What if these things were harnessed for spreading the news about awesome deals? Here are some examples:

* The Orioles could post on their Facebook page at 9am on the day of a 7:05pm start time that tickets in a certain lightly-sold section are 20% off, but only if you call 888-848-BIRD and mention a code word in the post.

* The O's could send a tweet on an off day: All tickets to upcoming series vs. BOS come with a $5 food voucher good anywhere in the stadium if you call 888-848-BIRD to order TODAY ONLY

* The O's could set up their own text service - rather than the MASN, "Text ORIOLES to 29292" it could be "Text TICKETS to (whatever number)" and periodically they could text out discount codes for tickets to tonight's game purchased via - if this is possible given the weird, centrally-controlled MLB Advanced Media entity.

The point of all this is easy: give some incentive for people to make impulse buys. Presently, fans are discouraged from impulse purchases of day-of-game O's tickets by higher prices on walk-up/day-of-game tickets. An O's game, for most people, is not a go because you have nothing better to do destination - ah, but if you're suddenly given a reminder that you could go to the O's game tonight, and here, what a bargain... Everyone loves feeling like they are getting a deal.

A challenge would be to have this sort of thing be at the right level where it encourages someone to go but not at such a must-have level that regular ticket-purchasing behavior stops in order to wait for the discount. Additionally, you don't just want scalpers buying up all the tickets. All of that's something for someone who actually works for the O's to figure out, though. I hope they try. (Note to the Orioles: I am available to take these and other ideas into the execution phase.)

This is all outside-the-box stuff. The Orioles have a box they seem to be very comfortable in already. Perhaps they like that box and they don't want to try anything different. That's their choice to make, but let's remember where the burden lies for increasing the attendance. The Orioles are the ones with the excess tickets. It's not the fault of fans who decide to do other things and be other places. It's the Orioles who haven't given them some place better to be.