Orioles Attendance: The Airing of Grievances

Yesterday we heard, once again, for about the millionth time in our life as a baseball fan, that the attendance figures at Camden Yards just aren’t good enough. It’s not just yesterday. We’ve been hearing mumbles and groans to this effect for months. But yesterday it became louder than that when Dan Connolly published his latest piece calling Camden Yards a Red Sox haven. The piece got some traction on social media and was discussed more or less all day for two days on sports talk radio, with Connolly making an appearance on 105.7 Wednesday afternoon. As usual, he was wont to remind listeners exactly how much experience he has covering the Orioles (sixteen years, if you were blissfully unaware of that fact).

Like most people who are a little too close to the club, and like some of the team’s most vocal fans, Connolly pursues willful myopathy when searching for reasons why the Yard isn’t full to capacity more often. He also takes the lazy and wrong approach of simply blaming the fans for not showing up. The attendance numbers at Camden Yards are not the fault of general, casual fans, and today we’d like to explain why.

First of all, we’d like to dispense with the notion that Oriole fans are the ‘best fans in baseball’ or that such a thing even exists. This is a myth spread by nearly every MLB team for marketing purposes. Fandom is not an active, competitive sport and any attempt to rate and compare fan bases through ticket sales, jersey sales, ‘pride’ All-Star voting or any combination is just folly. No one team’s fans are better or more knowledgeable or more loyal than another’s. You can’t market your way into building a fanbase. It doesn’t work like that. It takes decades of custom and tradition to create a true fanbase.

Not altogether apart from, but certainly distinct from fanbases there are markets. It is also foolish to try to casually compare one MLB market to another. It should be obvious that Baltimore is a world apart from cities like New York, Chicago or San Francisco which have millions of people living within just a few miles of the ballpark. Nor are we Boston or Saint Louis or Atlanta, whose markets and fanbases cover giant swaths of territory over several states. Even if you do find another city to make an apt comparison, its wholly inadequate to look only at a few top-line factors like population, team record and ticket prices to make a comparison. To be of any real meaning, such a comparison would have to be comprehensive, and take into account more factors (number of plan holders, giveaways, sales promotions offered, historical attendance, schedule, etc) than could easily be considered in a blog post or a talk radio segment.

It is the lot of each MLB franchise that they must market to the market in which they play. The Orioles must do their best to sell tickets to Marylanders, and not sit around the warehouse wishing they had the fanbase of the Cubs or the Red Sox or anyone else. As it happens, they’re doing a very poor job of it in 2016.

Major League Baseball has made mistakes. Of course the commissioner’s office, with all its pomp and self-importance, will never admit that but certain of those mistakes are so obvious as to be a naked-emperor situation. The unbalanced schedule has shown itself to be in need of reform. Its whole raison d’ĂȘtre was to heighten the pitch and excitement of the pennant race in late August and September (thereby selling more tickets and drawing more TV viewers, of course). This never created a playoff race that was more exciting than one which occurred naturally, but since MLB changed the playoff structure and added the extra wild card, with the express purpose of getting more teams into the postseason, the unbalanced schedule has become even more absurd.

It’s common knowledge that the unbalanced schedule has hurt the Orioles on the field. What’s seldom discussed is that it also hurts the Orioles in the stands. The Orioles play almost half their season against the East, meaning almost half their home games are against the same four opponents. Half of those are against the Yankees and Red Sox.

The marketing minds at the Warehouse, and at the Commissioner’s office on Park Avenue subscribe to the theory that fans should fall all over themselves and pay a premium to see 1. An artificially induced pennant race and 2. Big name players like Jeter, ARod, Texiera, Mariano Rivera, Papi, Papelbon, etc etc. Well guess what? Those guys are all out of baseball or soon to be. The gravy train has left the station for the big markets. Even when the Yankees and Red Sox were at their peak, they were not particularly likable teams.

Their front offices, as the Dan Connollys of the world are often reminded, do a good enough job of marketing that they either induce fans to travel to see the team on the road, or reach/create enough fans down the east coast to sell a large number of tickets to our games year after year. It’s bad enough to ask Oriole fans to watch the same unlikable teams over and over again, but it becomes even more unpleasant when you’ve got to deal with 10,000 obnoxious opposing fans. These teams are just not a draw for Baltimore fans and the Warehouse still doesn’t get it. On top of that the Orioles think fans should pay more for the privilege, and charge a premium for Yankees/Sox games. This is why we personally haven’t bought single-game tickets to a NYY/BOS game in 10 years. It’s also why season ticket holders very often offer those tickets at resale to offset the price of plans.

So, having given up on seeing the Yankees and Red Sox live as a fan, we too often end up seeing the Blue Jays and Rays over and over and over again. In the long run it would help Orioles attendance greatly if there were more opportunities to see other teams, and to see live the rest of baseball’s big-name stars. This was the idea behind interleague play, but the MLB has botched that completely as well. However, that’s a topic for another day.

Another mistake MLB has made and will never admit is a mistake is running its television and blackout system the way it does. Once upon a time there were a decent amount of games broadcast on WJZ. Now there’s maybe one, two a year? The only way to watch the Orioles regularly now is to pay for cable. Like many fans, we do. In fact, watching the Orioles is the only reason we subscribe to cable in the Age of Streaming. So we’re already paying over $1000 a year to watch them before we even buy our first ticket. And the TV coverage is good. It’s among the very best in baseball. It’s a pleasure to stay at home in one’s own air-conditioned house and drink one’s own cheap beer and listen to Jim and Gary call a game. If we were given a viable and money-saving option for streaming games, we’d buy it from the league directly, and probably attend a couple more games a year. But since we’re already paying for cable, we’re going to enjoy watching it.

But the MLB isn’t the only entity making mistakes here. The Orioles’ front office has made more than a few, and continues to press on as if there were only one way to market baseball.

Perhaps the point we most want to make, one that cannot be overstated, is that fans do not owe loyalty to a club, especially when that loyalty takes the form of specific behaviors like buying tickets. Despite what Manny Machado or any self-appointed “superfan” may say, the fans aren’t obligated to buy tickets, and once they have (as with a season plan) they aren’t obligated to actually show up. It is the front office’s responsibility to continually, year-in and year-out do their best to make us want to come to games. They need to Always Be Closing and not take the fans’ support for granted which they often do, to their continual disappointment and bewilderment.

The price of tickets is just too goddamned high. Period.

When hack writers like Dan Connolly take pains to point out how O’s prices compare to other cities or how the most recent price hike is “only the third in 12 years” they’re merely parroting GM Dan Duquette who routinely uses these and other justifications for gouging fans. This misses the point entirely. A better approach would be to compare ticket prices to the local cost of living, to the recent rise in wages locally (which has been at or near zero for many years) and most importantly, how baseball stacks up against other entertainment options. After all, this is what you’re really competing for: each fan’s disposable income budgeted for entertainment. When it becomes much easier and more affordable to go see a concert or a movie or take a day trip, people are going to do that instead of coming to the ballpark.

Let’s say we have a family of four and want to plan a trip to the ballpark this weekend. We just looked on the orioles site and four tickets (middle/average seats, the yellow coded ones) to Saturday’s Astros game will run $236 with taxes and fees included. Add parking and call it $15 and you’re in for $250. $250!!! For one game!!! For that kind of money hundreds of thousands of people are going to pack up the kids and go somewhere like Gettysburg, or get weekend passes to a music festival or any number of other options. After all, they can still see the game on the cable they pay for. They don’t even have to miss the game.

(We are aware that the Ravens command hundreds of dollars for seats, but they host 8 games a year, which makes baseball and football an apples-to-oranges comparison. Admission to our other favorite sporting venue, Laurel Park, is free. Not coincidentally, we now attend more live racing dates than baseball games each year.)

Now, (and this is important) many people will point out that tickets can be had for less on Stubhub, but Stubhub is a cruelly efficient market and is not a solution to the problem of high ticket prices writ-large. First of all, the prices there correlate directly to what the team charges for seats including fees, which is too much. Second, Stubhub sucks for sellers, taking just enough in fees to maybe make it worth selling (season) tickets rather than exchanging them or giving them away. And of course, as use of Stubhub by buyers (demand) rises, so will prices of those tickets posted. Left field nosebleeds for Wednseday’s game started at $17, which is $2 OVER “face” value. There is also the problem of sellers selling tickets only in pairs or groups.)

The Orioles management and their defenders will also point to things like the Dugout Club which help with family affordability. This is true. The Dugout Club in particular is a very good value and they sell a lot of tickets through that promotion. The problem is that once a family has bought tickets to multiple games in advance, they are committed to going to those games, and are very, very unlikely to spring for additional tickets at $250 per game.) Between this, Sunday season plans, Kids Run the Bases Sunday, and some Sunday giveaways Sunday has basically become family day at the park, and the front office is kind of shooting itself in the foot if it wants to get those fans to show up on Thursday and Friday as well. This Sunday, for example, there is a shirt giveaway on top of the ongoing promotions. Why would you run so many promotions concurrently and then expect people to just show up to a full price Friday game with no giveaway?

Another promotional strategy which may have worked too well is the way the team incentivizes and pushes really fucking hard at the beginning of the year the 13 game plans and various mini-plans or flex plans of four or six games. In addition to being a significant savings on 6 games, these have become the only way to obtain Opening Day tickets, and as such sell very well. But again, if fans have already put down hundreds of dollars at the beginning of the season and have taken pains to plan ballpark trips around everything else they’ve got going on throughout the Summer, they’re unlikely to buy additional tickets on a whim because they’ve got an upcoming game to look forward to, for which they’ve paid significantly less than an additional game will cost them.

There’s also the way the team shot themselves in the foot with the playoffs in recent years. They pushed very hard to sell 13 game plans, and putting a deposit on one was virtually the only way to secure the privilege of paying hundreds more for playoff tickets. Many people did, and season ticket sales swelled. While it may have looked great on TV, being crowded in with 47,000 towel-waving, 7-Nation Army-chanting bandwagon fans was not totally enjoyable for us personally, and it wasn’t something we were keen to repeat. We know too that many people who did buy plans for the sole reason of securing playoff tickets were met with hassles, headaches and frustrations when trying to use the team’s online system to buy those tickets, and at least a few were shut out.

Raising prices right after you’ve attracted thousands of new mini-plan holders was a particularly stupid business decision. When we gave up our season plan at the beginning of this year we told our plan representative that it was a direct result of the price hike and his reaction was about what you’d expect.

Let’s now consider the position of those fans (and there are not as many of them as the Orioles think there are) who are in the market for single game tickets and want to buy them more than a week in advance and are willing to pay whatever they cost at the box office. Why in the world would they not pick a giveaway date? Of course they all do. Of course! Bobblehead or Floppy Hat or Fireworks is better than no Bobblehead or Floppy Hat or Fireworks. The team draws extremely well during popular promotions, but it does so at the expense of non-giveaway games, and it needs to find a way or ways to correct that.

Camden Yards is arguably the best ballpark in the MLB. With its favorable downtown location the club should be selling at least five or six thousand walk-up tickets to even the least desirable games. There’s no reason they couldn’t top 10k in walk up tickets for a good weather weekend game. But they’re nowhere near that. It’s almost as if they are trying to kill walk up sales. And succeeding.

When fans do decide to come to the park either as a walk-up or buying tickets online a few days in advance (or God forbid the same day) they are absolutely crushed with fees. The only way to avoid a fee is to show up more than 24 hours in advance at the ballpark in person to buy tickets, which is very impractical for even nearby fans. The Dan Duquettes of the world will point out how prices compare favorably around the league, but will never, ever mention that fees are a part of the price. The Orioles have become as sleazy as any airline when it comes to charging fees. We personally were planning to buy tickets to one of the games that Dan Connolly and talk radio have been bitching about, but a $15 left field nosebleed increases to $22.50 after fees are levied. That’s a 50% hidden markup and it’s fucking unacceptable on its face. It’s especially odious when we consider that the baseline to get in the park used to be $9, and you could actually get in for $9. On Tuesday bargain nights you even got a free T-shirt to boot.

What happened to bargain night? It was a long-standing and very popular and effective promotion that filled seats on tough-sell weeknights reliably. We’ll tell you what happened to it: Duquette decided that because the team has a few seasons of winning records behind it Bargain Night is now beneath the dignity of the club, and people should be expected to pay a premium because there’s a slightly higher chance they might see a win.

Strangely, Student Night is still not beneath the dignity of the club, and is still a giant mess of drunk kids making the LF uppers completely inhospitable to any fan wanting to watch without a Spring Break atmosphere surrounding them for 9 innings. Student night ought to be ended and replaced with a student-ID discount available for all games.

We want to explain this explicitly to Connolly, Duquette, talk radio and our fellow fans: Yes, we do want the team to attract and retain players like Machado and Jones BUT this also has very little effect on how often the average fan will decide to visit the park. They use phrases like ‘product on the field’ but the uniformed players are really only a tiny part of what keeps fans coming back loyally year in and year out. When we go to a baseball game, we’re not going merely to watch statistics be compiled in real time. To walk through the gates is, in a way, to escape time and place entirely. The city, the world outside becomes an afterthought and it’s only what’s inside the park that matters. Then too, when a fan watches a game they’re not watching only one particular game, Boston in August, as it were. We’re watching in our mind’s eye every game we’ve ever attended. When we watch from the stands, we can still see Ripken and Brian Roberts, Brady Anderson and every other player we’ve ever watched live. Everyone we’ve ever brought to a game is there with us; friends who’ve left the city, fathers who’ve passed on, kids we knew growing up… they’re all there with us when we come to the park.

The bible says “What has been will be again. What has been done will be done again. There is nothing new under the sun.” So it is in the game of baseball. This is the key to building a loyal fanbase over generations, and it is the entire difference between going to the ballpark and watching on television. The Oriole front office, to their credit, has done some very good work in this way, specifically with the kids run the bases and Fathers’ Day/Mothers’ Day promotions. But for every success they’ve had in helping fans to create new memories they’ve also been guilty of trotting out the same half dozen hall of famers a few times too many to sell nostalgia back to a new generation at inflated prices. We’re 36 years old middle aged! and we’re too young to have really seen the Robinsons and Palmer play. It means more to us to make the ballpark accessible and fun now, to make us want to come to as many perfectly ordinary games as we can attend right now than to get weepy and nostalgic for the legendary teams we never knew. By charging exorbitant premiums, forcing us to walk through metal detectors, and yes, the ongoing travails of the city’s government and crime the park is becoming less welcoming with each passing year.

Aside from the fees, we could easily write another 2500 words just on the Orioles’ newly introduced dynamic pricing, but we’re going to touch on it as briefly as possible. We’re often reminded that dynamic pricing is becoming the accepted norm around Baseball, but the Orioles are not the only team, and not the only +.500 team experiencing sluggish attendance. Like instant replay, dynamic pricing is a disgrace to all of baseball and a mistake the MLB will never admit.

The top two levels for O’s tickets are prohibitive to most fans, or are at least a disincentive. The middle two levels are about what fans expect to pay, but again, the fees are onerous. The value games, which the marketing department is quick to point to, are very few, and the games that are value games are bullshit; they’re all 12:35 weekday getaways or early-season freezing-rain specials… or are at the same time as Ravens away games. The club will do its level best to fill the opening weekend and then wonder why people don’t want to come back the very next day to watch the Rays in rainy 50 degree temps. Knocking $5 off an already exorbitant ticket isn’t going to entice fans to do that. It would be tough to give those tickets away.

Speaking of giving tickets away… ten years ago the club did it all the time. There were several promotions each season in which you could earn tickets by patronizing the team’s corporate sponsors. These are now apparently also beneath the dignity of a winning team. There’s been one this season, via Pizza Boli’s, but even that had some fans looking askance when the come-on offered four tickets but the promotion was actually good for two. Giving away between 25000 and 50000 tickets over the course of a season may look like lost profit, but when those seats are going unsold anyway, when the recipients of those tickets are going to buy hot dogs and beers, and when the Dan Connollys of the world are bemoaning empty seats ticket giveaways are a very effective way to fill those seats.

As we said, we were planning to go to one of those Boston games. We were going to pony up and pay the cost, but we didn’t. And we’re glad we didn’t! For one: as much as everyone likes to remind us that the Orioles are in first place, the Orioles are not in first place. They are, as of this writing, third in the AL East above only the fire-sale Yankees and the hapless Rays. They’re barely holding onto that bullshit second wild card. Chris Tillman missed his scheduled start. Davis got shuffled into right field. The Orioles lost both games miserably. The “product on the field” is not the premium first-class team that some keep insisting it is and the fans know this- we’re not stupid. If we’re going to pay a premium for tickets we want to do it when the team has a good chance to win.

It’s also important to note that rain was forecast for both days of the series, and Wednesday’s game was mercifully called in the sixth inning with the score at 8-1 as severe thunderstorms and flash flooding overtook downtown and even the Oriole Park concourse itself. The club can’t control the weather of course, but if we’re being asked to shell out $30, $50 $100 or more to go see a game, you better believe we’re going to check the goddamn forecast first. If this particular series was poorly attended then yeah… that might have had something to do with it. We don’t all get to sit in a nice dry press box like Dan Connolly, who among other writers will continue to call Orioles fans pathetic whether they turn up or not.

We’ve said a lot here, but we want to wrap up with a reminder to all of the talk-radio callers, Facebook homers and self-appointed superfans who call other fans pathetic when they don’t show up, then want to police every other fan’s behavior in minute detail when they do come to a game.

We’re talking about the people who excoriate other fans for leaving early with no concern for how early some others may have to work the next day. Who demand everyone stay through every rain delay. Or gripe that fans don’t stand with two out and 2 strikes. Too often Orioles fans will demand other fans wear only team gear or specific players’ gear and ridicule anyone in an out-of-date jersey. What the hell does it matter if other fans want to take selfies or play Pokemon Go at the park? You know who likes to do the Wave? Most fans, that’s who. Those same fans you complain about when they aren’t there, you bitch about when they show up and make an earnest effort to enjoy themselves. There’s no such thing as the Best Fans in Baseball, but if there was… Baltimore, we ain’t it.

The team, its ownership, the front office, and the fans need to figure out how to make Oriole Park as fun, affordable and accessible as possible over the course of the whole season, and until they do the team will reap what it’s sown as attendance continues to suffer.