Anybody who has attended an Orioles game this year may have had an entire upper deck section to themselves. Those who watch games on television have noticed lots of empty green seats when the MASN cameras pan to yet another home run given up by Orioles pitching. Not many people are attending O’s games this season. Entering the current homestand against San Diego, an average of 16,758 fans have showed up to each game at Camden Yards. That ranks 28th in Major League Baseball, ahead of only Tampa Bay and Miami.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out why this is. Consumers don’t get excited to spend their time and money going to the ballpark to watch a club that owns a sub-.300 winning percentage. Especially when that team spent the last year jettisoning nearly all of the fan-favorite players and household names. (Could a casual Orioles fan pick Hanser Alberto, Keon Broxton, or Rio Ruiz out of a lineup?)
Those who are interested and invested enough in the Orioles to read Camden Chat understand that this is the first year in a rebuilding process that is being led by a new front office that has a track record of success. The losing and empty seats are an unavoidable part of a plan that will hopefully produce sustained success in a few seasons. With that said, it is interesting to look at the consequences of lagging attendances and potential solutions to the problem.
When discussing Orioles attendance, it is important to note that the club has not attracted big crowds in recent years. The shiny new Camden Yards was certainly a draw throughout the 1990’s. But in the past decade, even when the Orioles were fielding competing teams, the high water mark was 30,805 fans per game in 2014. Since then, the average fans per game has fallen steadily to the current 16,758. That is down from 20,053 last season when the O’s lost a franchise-worst 115 games.
There could be reasons for this other than the poor on-field play and unanimous players. Attendance throughout the major leagues has declined in recent years. Weather, an inordinate number of non-competitive teams, the convenience of staying home and watching games in high definition, and more partly explain this; Baltimore is no exception to any of those reasons. Some also claim that the unrest following the Freddie Gray protests have kept fans away from downtown. While there is only anecdotal and no empirical evidence to support that, attendance did not pick back up in 2016 when the Orioles were a playoff team.
Given that ticket revenue makes up a chunk of a baseball team’s operating budget, the Orioles are certainly feeling some economic impact from decreased attendance. Ownership surely knew this was coming and had to sign off on Mike Elias’ rebuilding effort. That doesn’t change the fact that they are generating less ticket revenue.
How much revenue is being lost as a result of falling attendance? This equation is imperfect, but we know that the Orioles are averaging 3,295 fewer fans per game from last year to this year and that the average ticket price is $29.95. Over the course of 81 home games, that equates to $7.9M less in ticket revenue. By itself, that estimate of lost ticket revenue accounts for 3% of their $251M in 2018 total revenue. The loss is more significant when factoring lost concessions and parking revenue. That 3% estimate is not a huge drop off, but would certainly come in handy for a team that is building an analytics department and international scouting operation from nearly scratch.
Is there anything the Orioles can do to increase attendance? Winning is obviously not an immediate solution. They can’t unilaterally schedule more weekend series against Boston, New York, and their well-traveling fans. (It doesn’t bode well for average attendance that they only have one more home weekend series at Camden Yards against Boston remaining and none with New York. I thought more of those games were remaining and would increase the average.)
Promotional giveaways and nights are usually a good reason for fans to come to the park. As the team goes through this period of the rebuild, it would be a good idea to increase the quality and quantity of promotions. I was disappointed that only one bobblehead is being given away this season. The 1989 “Why Not” celebration/t-shirt and Maryland flag jersey are interesting, but how many floppy hats and Hawaiian shirts does an O’s fan need? The various theme nights are well received, but a special ticket package is required to take part in them. Compare this to the Dodgers, who are giving away twelve bobbleheads this season. The Mets give away a variety of interesting bobbleheads. Royals fans will receive a Whit Merrifield oven mitt. Plenty of other interesting giveaways can be found here. The O’s could do better in this area.
During dark times like these, O’s fans enjoy looking back at happier times. Honoring Hall of Fame invitee Mike Mussina by inviting him to throw out the first pitch on June 30 should bring a few more fans out to the ballpark. More events like this would only make a minor impact, but they need all the help they can get and it actually gives us something to cheer for.
The O’s did a great thing last year by allowing kids to cheer for free. Considering they have extended this policy of allowing children to attend for free and they have reasonably priced tickets (by MLB standards), they are doing a decent job in this area. But they could take a page out of the Atlanta Falcons’ book and reduce the costs of concessions. Fans may be more likely to attend a game if they know they can eat for a reasonable price. Also, Atlanta has proven that decreased food costs actually increases revenue.
At the end of the day, the only reliable way to bring fans back to Camden Yards is to win. That will hopefully happen in a few years. Until then, it would be in the Orioles interest to bring more fans out to games. Not only would it benefit the financial bottom line, but it would also increase the community’s engagement with the team during this losing stretch.