The big drop in O’s attendance doesn’t lend itself to a quick fix

Daily Record Business Writer
April 2, 2009 6:06 PM

Come Monday, the streets around Oriole Park at Camden Yards will be alive with baseball fans coming out of their winter hibernation — a guaranteed swirl of black and orange, mixed with visiting Yankee blue — and filled with anticipation, predictions and for some, maybe a little hope.

But it’s not Opening Day Orioles marketers have to worry about. Nor will it be the other 17 days this Orioles spokesman Greg Bader: ‘Fans are less willing to commit those dollars upfront to specific games during the course of the year. They might be more willing to do that when the economy is strong.’year that the Orioles host the Yankees or the Boston Red Sox — which both draw sizable contingents of out-of-town fans.

It’s those other 63 games on Baltimore’s home schedule; those games that last year averaged about 20,700 people in a more than 48,000-seat park and highlight the fact that it hasn’t been easy to fill Camden Yards these days.

But the team’s attendance problem has been caused by a number of factors and doesn’t lend itself to a quick fix.

With 11 straight losing seasons and nine straight years of failing to crack the 3 million mark in annual attendance at Camden Yards, 2008 marked a new low for the team and its ability to draw fans.

Unfortunate milestones last year included producing the least-attended game in Camden Yards history with 10,505 fans one early April night and 1.95 million in total attendance for 78 games — a record-low for the ballpark’s 17 seasons.

“Nobody wants to go to a ballpark that’s dead ... and nobody wants to turn on their TVs and see the stands half empty,” said Mark Westerman, who recently founded West33 Consulting after nearly 14 years with Fila marketing. “It doesn’t look good.”

Attendance is, at its purest, a measure of the level of interest in a team, sports marketers say. But while it is a major revenue generator — depending on the franchise, gate receipts can fall between 30 percent and 60 percent of total revenue — the impact of attendance is much broader.

It affects concessions, parking and sponsorships, said Westerman.

“If I’m a corporate sponsor ... and there’s half as many people in [the] stands than there were a couple years ago, my sponsorship isn’t worth as much,” he said. “So do I want to be associated with a brand that isn’t doing well?”

Another consultant calls attendance the “Catch-22” in the business of baseball.

“That’s what’s so tough about sports, because depending on how much money you bring in, that dictates how much you get to spend on free agents — the better ones cost more but they bring more people into the park,” said Lisa Delpy Neirotti, a consultant and a sports management professor at George Washington University.

The Orioles’ on-field performance (68-93 last year) has translated to some of Major League Baseball’s worst viewership for the regional sports network that airs both their games and those of the Washington Nationals, who finished with the worst record in baseball last year at 59-102. Last year the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network pulled an anemic 37,000 homes combined that watched both teams’ games in the Baltimore-Washington market. The rating beat only Pittsburgh (32,000) and Kansas City (26,000).

But MASN spokesman Todd Webster said he expected the ratings to be stronger this year as last year’s teams were plagued with injuries. Although he said MASN does not release its advertising revenue, Webster noted the ratings have not hurt the network’s relationships with advertisers and that its ad revenue is pacing ahead of other stations with regional programming.

“These are strong brands with strong loyalties that are able to weather a downturn,” Webster said. “The Orioles have appointment TV — it’s live, TiVo-proof programming that people want to watch, and our advertisers recognize that.”

As majority owner of the network, which last year paid each team $28 million to air games according to reports, the Orioles benefit the most (or least) from MASN’s revenue, depending on how the teams are drawing, said Neirotti.

“They collect all the revenues coming in and keep all the profits,” she said. “But if advertising is down, [the Orioles] are the ones that are affected because they’ve already guaranteed that set price to the Nationals. So they either win big or lose big.”

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