For the Orioles, selling hope is the key

Posted: 6:34 pm Thu, April 1, 2010
By Liz Farmer
Daily Record Business Writer

With the chill of a particularly brutal winter finally replaced by warm sun and blue skies, it’s almost natural for most baseball fans to greet the start of baseball season with at least a glimmer of optimism and good spirits.

On the other hand, if you’re an Orioles fan who has endured a dozen straight losing seasons, that cupboard is pretty bare.

But there seems to be a buzz this spring in Baltimore that hasn’t been heard in years, and it’s not about wins and losses. It’s about the team and its future.

While many say it’ll still take time for the chatter to translate into bodies in the seats at Camden Yards, an average of 1,000 more fans per game are showing up at spring training games this year, an excitement that’s also fueled by the team’s new location in Sarasota. And some say the team, which opens its season on the road Tuesday against the Tampa Bay Rays, and its fans are heading to better days.

It’s not that the Orioles are selling hope and optimism inspired by a fresh start and everybody’s just happy to buy it — they’re selling a plan for the franchise that at least some Baltimoreans say they can believe in.

“I think your first duty is to be honest,” said Andy MacPhail, the team’s president of baseball operations. “Your second duty is to have a plan you believe in, and third you have to articulate and explain that to your fan base. Whether that results in optimism or hope is really a function of how fans interpret it.”

Many point to MacPhail’s hiring in 2007 as the catalyst for change the Orioles needed after years of front office shuffling and signing players who were past their prime.

“It seems like the ownership has made Andy MacPhail its face, and that’s very encouraging for fans to see someone who knows about baseball making those baseball decisions,” said Jim Caronna, 53, a longtime fan and a principle with KLNB Retail.

Getting fans onboard with the team’s management and direction, however, does not mean they will spend money to start showing up at games on a regular basis again. Even with all the hype about the Orioles’ young players, including catcher Matt Wieters, last season, total attendance still dropped by more than 2 percent to 1.9 million people.

“The next two years are critical in terms of performing on and off the field,” said Greg Abel, president of Baltimore-based Abel Communications and a former sports marketer for Octagon. “You need a .500-or-better season. You’ve got to get over the hump.”

He said the fans’ perception is that MacPhail is the first general manager in a long time who seems to have been given the time and freedom he needs with the team to make a difference. But after nearly three years, Abel said, the clock is ticking and fans need to see tangible results to know that the plan is working.

“You’ve got to think, man, if this one doesn’t pay off, another group of people who’ve been hanging in there might just drop off — myself included,” he said.

Fans want wins

Mike Swanson, vice president of communications and broadcasting for the Kansas City Royals, a once-storied franchise like the O’s that is suffering through pains of its own, said it’s hard to get fans to pull out their wallets when it comes to intangibles like hope.

“They want to see face value and want to see wins,” he said. “We want to see wins.”

Caronna said his company used to have Orioles season tickets but gave them up a few years ago after the company “couldn’t pawn them off” on its employees anymore.

While he’s optimistic about the team’s young talent, Caronna says he believes he’s in for more waiting.

“I’m a positive guy but these guys haven’t proven anything yet,” he said.

But many believe they’re on their way. Over the past few years, the team’s farm system has returned to respectability under the guidance of MacPhail and coordinators in the Orioles’ minor league system.

And it helps that MacPhail has been upfront about his plan to rebuild the Orioles from the ground up and hasn’t wavered, said John Maroon, of Maroon PR in Marriottsville.

“It’s very easy when fans get restless to walk away from a plan,” said Maroon, a former communications director for the team. “It takes guts and belief in yourself to stick with that plan. Andy’s done that … and results are starting to show.”

Those results have been coming in the form of O’s draft picks now on the roster like Wieters, outfielders Nolan Reimold and Nick Markakis and pitcher Brian Matusz, to name a few.

Many marketers say those are the guys (in addition to other young talent like Adam Jones and players who have been in Baltimore for a long time, like Brian Roberts) that the team needs to highlight to create optimism.

“When I drive down the freeway and see a billboard of Matt Wieters, I think ‘Now there’s a kid who represents hope for the future,’” said Abel, referring to a billboard visible entering Baltimore on Interstate 395. “There is a core of young talent there, [and] that’s what’s exciting for fans.”

Promotional plans

The Orioles have promotional plans around some of the younger players but don’t intend to go full force with the more inexperienced ones, said team spokesman Greg Bader. In addition to its family, student and some weekday promotions, the Orioles are bringing back the 2110 Eutaw Street promotion that plays off Markakis’ and Jones’ jersey numbers (21 and 10, respectively).

Several promotional nights are scheduled for Wieters (including a T-shirt night and bobble head night), who made his major league debut last May with the team. Bader said a mini-bobble head night is scheduled for Reimold, but the marketing department wants to lie low with the other young players.

“You don’t want to put undue pressure on a younger guy,” Bader said. “Then the expectation level in the fan increases, and then the player increases his own expectations. We’re certainly not shying away from our young guys … but we’re certainly not going to put any undue pressure on them.”

Meanwhile Bader said Orioles promotions will also include marketing former Orioles favorites, and the team is bringing back its alumni autograph series in which players like pitchers Dave Schmidt and Dave Johnson sign autographs before the game.

But some question whether the latter promotions are effective because it gives the impression the team is apologizing for not being the success it once was.

“That’s like saying we used to be great and now we’re not,” said Abel. “You can’t lose for a dozen years in a row and then expect people to come today based on a great experience watching Brooks Robinson in 1975 or [Cal] Ripken [Jr.] in 1993.”

So even with a core of young talent that fans can get excited about, the Orioles marketing department can’t whip up some more wins to go along with that. And that’s what makes turning this optimism into season ticket sales a tall order until there’s evidence to back it up.

“It is what it is,” said Bader. “We are as upfront as possible with our expectations with the club [and] the direction we’re heading.”

Promoting charity

Rick Vaughn, vice president of communications for the Tampa Bay Rays, said during his team’s lean years its marketers tried hard to promote the Rays as a charitable member of the community.

“We had 10 years of losing seasons, and particularly late in that run we tried to focus on that connection,” said Vaughn, who worked in the Orioles communications department from 1984 through 1994. “Selling hope is difficult.”

But when the Rays player development and scouting paid off and a band of likeable young guys made the franchise’s first World Series appearance in 2008, the difference in what the team’s marketers could do “was like night and day,” he said.

“It’s a great feeling to promote our players,” said Vaughn. “It’s something we weren’t able to do the first 10 years and make it meaningful.”

MacPhail is quick to say that fans will need to be patient for a winning season, despite the blossoming enthusiasm around the young roster. After all, the team dropped to 64 victories  last year, from 68 in 2008.

“But I think the baseball community, whether it was fans or the national media, [last] year saw significant progress,” he said. “My goal for 2010 is they see the same kind of progress, hopefully on a collective basis rather than the individual. Whether it’s 82 wins is less important than they see that we’re making progress as a team on the field.”

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