If lovers claim that time heals all wounds, then sports fans can argue that winning does, too.
At least that’s what Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos is hoping, since he seems to have no intention of reconnecting with his team’s fans.
Currently, many legitimate and lifelong Orioles fans do not care about the team. Baltimore has a proud baseball tradition and fiercely loyal, passionate fans.
Yet Baltimoreans seem more interested in what the Ravens will do in the upcoming NFL Draft than the start of the MLB season.
It’s hard to quantitatively capture public sentiment, but attendance figures are a good barometer.
In 1997 the Orioles went wire-to-wire in the AL East and set a franchise attendance record of 3,711,132, or an average of 45,816 per game. Last year only 2,164,822 tickets were purchased, equating to 27,060 fans per game, the team’s lowest figure since 1988.
2008’s early attendance totals show more of the same apathy. WNST’s (AM 1570) Drew Forrester, in his April 1 radio show and blog, noted the abundance of tickets available prior to the game, and a quick look around the stadium betrayed the announced attendance figure of 46,807.
Forrester claimed that a Baltimore Sun photo of the seats during Opening Day found 54 seats occupied and 178 empty.
A lackluster showing on Opening Day is likely a bellwether for the rest of the year. Wednesday’s game—the team’s second game of the season, mind you—drew only 10,505, the smallest crowd in Camden Yards history. Clearly Baltimoreans are in no hurry to rush out to the Yard this season.
Why the attendance drop? Why doesn’t Baltimore care about the Orioles?
Many factors influenced the trend in decreasing attendance. The 2005 addition of the Washington Nationals to the mid-atlantic baseball scene is notable, but does not fully explain the phenomenon. Year-by-year analysis of the attendance records proves the downward trend started long before Nationals arrived.
No reason is more obvious than the Orioles coinciding 10-year streak of losing seasons, starting in 1998.
To this end, Angelos seems committed to rebuilding the team in order to achieve success in 2009 and beyond.
He gave President of Baseball Operations Andy MacPhail complete autonomy over baseball moves, as evidenced by not only the trades of SS Miguel Tejada and SP Erik Bedard, but also the decision to release OF Jay Gibbons and accept the sunk cost of his contract.
Simply citing wins and losses as justification for the attendance (and general public opinion) drop over the last decade is an incomplete explanation, however.
This generation of O’s fans has been subject to the reign of Peter the Terrible and his money first, baseball second ways.
By raising ticket prices, refusing to put “Baltimore” on the team’s away jerseys, meddling in baseball affairs, and distancing himself from the team’s storied past, Angelos himself is the reason many fans are jaded about their once-beloved team.
For too long, Angelos and the front office have relied on the faithful devotion of Baltimore baseball fans. Those fans are proud of their team’s history, and Angelos could afford to bank on that pride and allegiance for a few years following the team’s ’96 and ’97 playoff teams to carry fan interest and ticket sales.
Ten years of losing—without a plan for improving or concessions from Angelos—is too much for even some of the most die-hard O’s fans.
Angelos has bled Baltimore’s loyalty dry, and still doesn’t recognize a need to change the way the organization reaches out to the Baltimore community.
The question is whether Angelos’s maturity in handling the on-the-field rebuilding process will carry over to his off-the-field stance. If so, the next query is how he might accomplish this long-neglected issue.
Like Alcoholics Anonymous, the first step in rebuilding Oriole fans’ faith in the organization would be for Angelos to admit there is a problem.
Taking responsibility for the team’s demise would be a good move for Angelos, although highly unlikely due to his personality. He sets the tone for the organization with his complete lack of public presence.
Andy MacPhail has done an admirable job of assuming the role of front man for the organization but, as the owner, Angelos should act less like “The Judge” from The Natural and more like Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, at least in terms of expressing his love for his team by availing himself to local media and fans.
The entire organization’s response to the unmistakably negative light through which most of Baltimore views its team has been, in true Angelos fashion, to feign ignorance.
The ticket office does its part in avoiding the elephant in the room. Drew Forrester reports that the ticket office bundled Opening Day tickets into the team’s six-game ticket package, thus prohibiting fans from purchasing them.
Shouldn’t the organization try to sell out Opening Day as opposed to withholding tickets?
Since the O’s are not going to consistently win anytime soon, their ticket office needs to create other attractions to draw fans back to Camden Yards.
The simplest solution would be to simply lower ticket prices, but with Angelos’s short-sighted focus on the bottom line, this appears unlikely.
The organization could learn from the Kansas City Royals, who are also one of baseball’s worst teams. Kansas City’s 2008 motto is “New. Blue. Tradition.” – A clear acknowledgment of its rebuilding project. (Note: The O’s 2008 motto – “This is Birdland.” Huh?)
The Royals also offer innovative promotions such as “Dodge Buck Night,” during which all hot dogs, drinks, and peanuts are only $1.
Angelos and the Orioles have many more opportunities to reconnect with fans other than simply appealing to their wallets. For example, fans have griped for years about Angelos’s refusal to allow “Baltimore” on the team’s road jerseys or stadium signs.
So worried about achieving a broad appeal in the Mid-Atlantic, the MASN mogul has forgotten that the team does in fact play in Baltimore.
Angelos could also take steps to reconnect with past Oriole legends, thus linking the current team with its glorious history. The team’s almost non-existent relationship with icon Brooks Robinson is well documented. Even Cal Ripken Jr., likely the most popular Oriole of all time, is not much of a factor these days.
None of these suggestions are new. Fans have voiced these concerns to the organization It’s not fair to blame the Orioles’ marketing team, public relations department, or ticket office for their missteps, though.
Organizations, like businesses, are run from the top-down, and under Angelos’s “leadership” it’s no wonder that the Orioles are considered by many industry experts to be the sport’s (and possibly all of sports’) worst organization.
Winning seasons and playoff appearances brought fans to the Yard and masked the selfish intentions of Peter Angelos. Still living in 1997, Angelos needs to realize that demand for O’s tickets, and loyalty in general, is not inelastic.
Angelos’s mediocre effort to field a competitive team combined with his complete lack of effort to engage fans has led to the apathy surrounding 2008 Orioles baseball.
Can Angelos reform? Will the Orioles regain respectability?
As Angelos goes, so goes the organization. If he remains stuck with his head in the sand, convinced that Baltimore feels the same way about his team in 2008 as it did in 1997, his commitment to on-the-field rebuilding will be for naught.
Hey Baltimore, want an even scarier, yet very realistic, thought? Maybe Angelos is not ignorant to how the city feels. What if he knows how your city really feels about the O’s and doesn’t care?