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Orioles' Early Season Lagging Attendance: No Weatherman Needed

May 16, 2016
I am not telling you anything you don't know about April's weather, which has bled into early May in Charm City. But while most of us have observed an uncharacteristic number of empty green seats so far at Oriole Park at Camden Yards, did you know that, as of May 5, the near first-place American League East Orioles were sitting 26th of 30 MLB teams in terms of attendance.

The O's averaged 20,259 fans per game during their first 15 home contests. Only four other AL teams -- the Oakland Athletics, Chicago White Sox, Tampa Bay Rays and Cleveland Indians -- had smaller averages per game in that time. 

What has been so alarming about where the O's sit in these attendance rankings is that on May 5, they finished up a three-game home series against the New York Yankees that drew just 51,679.

Before you begin the gnashing of teeth over this specific decline, the Yankees' one-time luster has been dulled of late, and last year's opening series with New York, also on week nights, drew 64,325 -- only 12,646 more fans than this year.

So what's the root cause for a decline that makes little sense, given the Orioles' attendance trend during the past four seasons? Not to mention the fact that owner Peter Angelos, not always the most popular guy in town, stepped up to spend more than $235 million on free-agent contracts for first baseman Chris Davis, reliever Darren O'Day, catcher Matt Wieters, right-hander Yovani Gallardo and designated hitter Pedro Alvarez (not to mention the $9.15 million the club took on for the acquisition of Mark Trumbo and the arbitration gains from a number of players). Those moves took a 2015 payroll of $119.7 million all the way up to $147,693,713 this season. 

What's more confounding is that the O's won their first seven games of the season and spent much of the first month in, or very near, first place in the AL East.

So, what gives?

The most popular place to point fingers has been Mother Nature. While I cannot pinpoint exactly the dates and types of weather in nearby markets, I do have to ask why the Washington Nationals averaged 26,144 for their first 12 home dates and the Philadelphia Phillies averaged 24,807 for their first 13 dates. It's pretty fair to assume they are part of the same basic weather pattern.

The other topic that seems to have legs when declining attendance is discussed now is the civil unrest from a year ago, after the death of Freddie Gray in police custody. I can't tell you that it's not a factor, I just don't see it as a big cause for this season's early downturn.

What really may be driving this season's early attendance decline was the manner in which the club decided upon the level of ticket-price increases for 2016.

A lot of times, the Ravens are applauded for the clear-cut fashion and transparency in their rather straightforward approach to price increases that seem to occur every two to three years. It's much easier for an NFL team, with personal seat licenses partners, to announce almost any level of increase per ticket. It's also much easier for their fans to absorb increases when applied to multiples per game of 10, rather than 81. 

It's no secret the Orioles are one of the later teams on a yearly basis to release individual game prices and send out season-ticket renewals. On closer inspection, what happened this year was a confluence or a perfect storm that set the team up for the potential lackluster early season ticket sales.

The Orioles' success in 2014 allowed the team to leverage postseason ticket sales to lock in season-ticket holders for the next season. Therefore, when the team released season-ticket information or went to sell the individual game tickets for 2015, there was no resultant drag on sales numbers. In fact, demand during the offseason between 2014 and 2015 was at its highest levels since the late 1990s and first few years in the 21st century.

It was with that recent history in mind that the Orioles endeavored to navigate tricky and prolonged negotiations, with not only Davis, but the subsequent addition of Gallardo and outfielder Dexter Fowler. Forget for a moment that Fowler never put on an O's uniform, and despite the protestations of his agent, Casey Close, Fowler was close enough to being fitted for the orange and black that his contract value was in the equation when the O's were deciding what level of ticket-price hike to institute for 2016.

By the time this paper is in your hands, the Orioles will have had a four-game weekend series against the Detroit Tigers (May 12-15) and a three-game, weeknight series against the Seattle Mariners (May 17-19). 

My money is on a significant upturn beginning with those two series, when the weather finally figures to be more cooperative.

It's just an educated guess here, but the Orioles, if they had it to do over again, would not only not have traded right-hander Jake Arrieta to the Chicago Cubs in July 2013, but they would also have liked to get their pricing and ticket sales in play much earlier.

Let's put it this way, when the Nationals held their equivalent event to FanFest for this season in December 2015, they had tickets on sale for individual games and new season-tickets and mini-plan holders. That was not the case for those attending Orioles FanFest in December 2015.

Hindsight always being 20-20 may tell me that objections to games over weather in April are not in buyers' minds in November or December, when a baseball fan is mapping out and calculating how he or she can afford that 13-game mini-plan.

But that same fan, with that money still in his or her pocket on a cold, rainy April afternoon, may elect to keep that money in his or her pocket, grab a six-pack, kick back in their easy chair and just watch the game while listening to Gary Thorne and Jim Palmer wax poetically on MASN.

Issue 221: May 2016