By Jeff Barker, The Baltimore Sun
May 5, 2013
For decades, the Orioles commanded a sweeping empire of fans — a territory larger than some European countries, stretching from southern Pennsylvania to North Carolina and including Washington, where the team operated a popular retail store.
The club's games are still broadcast across most of the same region, but the Orioles now share much of it with the Washington Nationals, who are ensconced in a population-rich portion of what was once the Orioles' domain.
The Nationals' arrival in 2005 created a complicated relationship in which the teams are at once neighbors, opponents on the field and, lately, bickering business partners when it comes to the regional television network they co-own but the Orioles control.
The clubs are outwardly cordial — it helps that they are in different leagues — and both teams' front offices are anxious to keep it that way.
"There's plenty of room for two teams in the region," said Andy Feffer, the Nationals' chief operating officer.
"Both organizations just have a comfort level in terms of where their fans are," said Greg Bader, the Orioles' vice president for communications and marketing.
But maintaining the relationship can be challenging. The clubs are like roommates sharing a space that one had long occupied. They must make delicate calculations about how far they can go in marketing without intruding on the other's turf.
It doesn't help that the franchises can't agree on how much more money the Nationals should receive in annual rights fees from the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network (MASN), which televises both teams' games. The issue has been unsettled for more than a year, and neither team will comment on it.
The dispute was predictable, given how the network's ownership is structured, said John Mansell, a sports media consultant from Great Falls, Va. The Orioles were given a majority stake in MASN after owner Peter G. Angelos argued that in order to remain viable, his club would need to recoup the money lost with the emergence of a second team in Baltimore's commercial territory. One club controlling another club's network, Mansell said, "was a recipe for disaster."
The rights-fee dispute remains under advisement by baseball commissioner Bud Selig.
Major League Baseball also oversees the clubs' marketing territories. The Orioles and Nationals, who will play each other four times in late May, seem to have more flexibility to promote themselves across the region than their NFL counterparts — the Ravens and Washington Redskins.
In a 2004 agreement, the NFL divided the state into Ravens "purple" and Redskins "burgundy." The Redskins were given exclusive rights to Montgomery and Prince George's counties; the Ravens got the rest.
The NFL's boundaries apply to sales or promotions using team symbols and cover everything from team-related pizza-topping giveaways to billboards and mailed solicitations. But the lines don't always work. In 2006, John Ziemann, president of the Ravens marching band, received a Redskins season-ticket solicitation at his Harford County home. So did a Ravens executive.
"I thought, 'They're barking up the wrong tree with this boy,' " Ziemann said.
The Redskins told The Balltimore Sun that the flier was sent to the county inadvertently. The team said the mailing, coordinated by a Redskins sponsor, was supposed to have been sorted to exclude Ravens-area addresses.
If Major League Baseball has carved out marketing territories — and it says it has — it's not sharing them publicly.
When the Nationals, after 36 seasons as the Montreal Expos, arrived in Washington for the 2005 season, MLB said the team's operating territory would be defined in the Major League Baseball Constitution, the occasionally amended governing agreement among the 30 clubs. At the time of the Nationals' move, the document defined the Orioles' territory as the city of Baltimore and the counties of Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll, Howard and Harford. It did not include Washington, even though the Orioles then had a retail store there.
MLB declined to explain the reasoning or provide an updated document.
Washington's natural marketing territory, which includes rapidly growing Northern Virginia, dwarfs Baltimore's in population. Washington's "designated market area," which measures television households, is the nation's eighth-largest. "That's a huge marketplace," Feffer said.
Baltimore's TV market was 27th in the 2011-2012 rankings.
"The Nats are a team on the rise in the bigger market," said Mike Reynolds, news editor for Multichannel News, a trade magazine and website. Given that, he said, it's "pretty unique" that they are a "subset" of the regional sports network broadcasting their games.
Angelos could not be reached for comment last week. He told The Baltimore Sun in 2008 that MASN was structured "to save this franchise from competition introduced immediately in its backyard."
In its most recent assessments, Forbes valued the Orioles at $618 million (17th in MLB) and the Nationals at $631 million (14th).
Through its first 11 home games, Washington averaged more than 30,000 (31,110) fans for the first time since its inaugural season in 2005. The Orioles are averaging 26,398 over 12 home games. That's up 12.1 percent from last season, which the club considers encouraging since it hasn't yet hosted the top-drawing New York Yankees or Boston Red Sox.
The Orioles and Nationals both are coming off a successful year in which they made the playoffs.
Both teams enjoy wide latitude to promote themselves. The Nationals say their marketing territory and television footprint are essentially the same and include Washington, Maryland, Virginia, Delaware and parts of West Virginia, Pennsylvania and North Carolina.
The Orioles' reach is very similar. The team's radio network has affiliates in Washington and all the Nationals' states. "At a minimum, in each of those locations, there are radio spots that promote the club," Bader said.
Each team markets more heavily close to home. But the Orioles don't believe countless baseball fans in Washington, Virginia and other states abandoned the team once the Nationals showed up.
"We feel there are certainly many Orioles fans who have been Orioles fans for many years throughout the region that should continue to receive information on the club and want to follow the club," Bader said.
Among those outlying fans is Robert Brandon, a Washington public-interest lawyer, who retained his Camden Yards ticket plan after the Nationals arrived.
"My youngest daughter, who is 25, is perplexed and annoyed at anybody who could switch allegiance," Brandon said. "She says, 'If they were really Orioles fans, how could they switch [to the Nationals]?' "
The Nationals see it differently. Feffer, the chief operating officer since 2010, said Washington-area fans may still follow the Orioles but were ready to embrace a new team.
The Nationals — whose big-name stars are 20-year-old outfielder Bryce Harper and 24-year-old starting pitcher Stephen Strasburg — have branded themselves as young and hip, making ample use of social media and a slogan ("Natitude") designed to connote edginess.
"I think what you're seeing more and more of is that plenty of people that grew up in the Washington area — who have been dying to have a baseball team that was their own — have adopted the Nationals because that is the hometown team," Feffer said.
Feffer acknowledged that he still meets plenty of leftover Orioles fans in Washington. But he said there are "natural barriers" — such as traffic — that make it difficult to live in one city and support a team in another.
It works both ways. Some Baltimore-area fans travel to Washington to check out the Nationals.
There are no figures available on how many Nationals fans come from Baltimore. "Fans will stop by [at Nationals Park] and say, 'I'm from Arbutus,' or, 'I'm from Glen Burnie.' And they're wearing Nats gear," said Phil Wood, who hosts a Nationals postgame radio show.
"There's no law against visiting the other franchise," Angelos told The Baltimore Sun when Washington's new $611 million stadium opened in 2008. "One's a National League city and one's an American League city."
But both teams seem wary of promotions too near the other's base.
For years, the Orioles maintained their Washington outlet store that sold tickets and merchandise. The Orioles said there is no rule preventing them from operating such a store today. But the team closed it at the end of 2006.
In 2008, the Nationals sent Screech, their bald-eagle mascot, to the Inner Harbor on a weekday to greet passersby. Screech was joined by the Racing Presidents — the big-headed renditions of Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. They distributed freebies such as Nationals pocket schedules. The Oriole Bird mascot also was there.
The idea was to promote not just the Nationals but an impending Nationals-Orioles series at Camden Yards, said Mike Schaffer, a Washington public-relations executive who helped concoct the visit when his former firm worked as a Nationals contractor.
Screech and the Racing Presidents have not returned to the Inner Harbor since. It might be considered brazen for the Nationals' mascots to show up in Baltimore today.
"The Nats were still pretty new [in 2008], and neither team was tearing it up on the field at the time," Schaffer said last week. "Both teams are in a different situation [now]. Both have a great on-field product."
Copyright © 2013, The Baltimore Sun