Amid attendance woes, Orioles and Ravens aggressively court fans

Yes, the Orioles have been awful this year. And yes, the weather on a recent Saturday was terrible, a soaking rain that delayed the game’s start more than 90 minutes and continued throughout much of the team’s 8-5 loss to the New York Yankees.

But that mattered none to the Nicewarner sisters, Jenny and Johanna. They had come to Camden Yards with their father not just to see the Orioles play but to sit in the outfield afterward and watch the 1993 movie “The Sandlot” on the giant scoreboard.

“It would have been nice without the rain, but we’re very excited about this,” said Jenny Nicewarner, 29, eager to combine a night of their favorite baseball team with a favorite movie, a nostalgic look at family, friendships and myth-making through the prism of a neighborhood game. “I thought it was really cool, getting to watch ‘The Sandlot,’ which is a baseball movie, on a real baseball field.”

Count the Nicewarners satisfied fans, in a season when satisfying fans has been a challenge. With both the hometown Orioles and Ravens facing attendance problems, the need to sweeten the fan experience has become even more crucial. For the Orioles, it’s a matter of using game-day promotions to attract new fans. For the Ravens, it’s about addressing existing fans’ desires, whether by rolling back concessions prices (announced in May) or enabling more people to attend training camp (announced just this month).

“Our cultivation of our season-ticket customer base is ongoing, and it’s always been that way,” said Kevin Byrne, the Ravens’ executive vice president for public and community relations.

Said Greg Bader, the Orioles VP of communications and marketing: “We are consistently looking for ways in which to attract existing fans and cultivate new ones to help grow the Orioles brand.”

The movie night, a first for the Orioles, was but the latest in an increasing number of giveaways, promotions and theme nights. Already this season, the team has staged its first “Star Wars” night, where fans who paid a premium attended a bullpen party and received an O’Day-Wan Kenobi bobblehead, depicting reliever Darren O’Day in Jedi garb. It’s started a program — the first of its kind in the majors — where children 9 and younger can get in for free with a paying adult.

Still to come: LGBT pride night on Wednesday; fireworks after every Friday home game through August; “Birdland Socials,” pregame gatherings aimed at social-media users, on Tuesday and July 24; a “Game of Thrones” theme night Aug. 14; and “Bark at Oriole Park,” a chance for fans to pay a premium and bring their dogs, on Sept. 12.

The promotions schedule was finalized in the offseason, long before the team started performing at a level that has left it with one of the worst records in baseball. But with per-game attendance — 20,029 through the season’s first 34 home games, according to baseball-reference.com, compared with 27,985 for the same number of games last year — declining by an average of nearly 8,000 fans, the importance of attracting new fans and appeasing the existing base is heightened.

“It certainly has its challenges,” Bader said of bringing in crowds this season.

“What you need to do as an organization is insulate yourself. There are going to be some years where you win, and you’re going to have some years where you’re going to lose. You need to try to build your fan base and build a brand that can withstand the years where you’re not having as good a season as you’d want.”

Team officials avoid saying the rise in promotions is tied to the Orioles’ on-field woes and attendance challenges. But clearly, what Bader refers to as “adding a tangible extra to the game experience” makes a difference.

“There is no doubt that they have an effect,” said Laurence M. McCarthy, a faculty member at Seton Hall University’s school of business and co-author of “Sports Promotion and Sales Management.” “Undoubtedly, it brings in more people on those nights when there is a giveaway. … It’s a slow grow, but I think they do have somewhat of a permanent effect.”

The Ravens, after three mediocre seasons in which they failed to make the playoffs and last season’s controversy surrounding players’ taking a knee during the national anthem, saw a noticeable rise in empty seats at M&T Bank Stadium. True, the team has sold out every home game since arriving in Baltimore in 1996, but those no-shows suggest a dissatisfied fan base.

Unlike the Orioles, who have 81 home games to fill, the Ravens have just 10 (including a pair of preseason exhibitions). So the emphasis is on retaining existing fans, Byrne says.

“We’ve got to keep getting these people to want to come back,” Byrne said, “but you can’t always depend on the team for that.”

Fans can win trips to away games and the chance to help form a gantlet as players leave the locker room for the field and to attend OTA (organized team activities) practices.

Officials have even resorted to phoning season-ticket holders personally. They’ve made more than 2,000 such calls since the season ended.

“We have done more of that calling this year than ever before,” Byrne said. “This was an offseason that needed that type of enthusiasm.”

Other NFL teams have been making similar moves. The Atlanta Falcons reduced food and nonalcoholic drink prices last season by 50 percent (and saw fan spending increase by 16 percent). The Washington Redskins just announced measures aimed at season-ticket holders, including reduced concession prices (up to 50 percent less than other fans at the game pay), access to offseason events and new entertainment areas at FedExField.

For the Orioles, the added giveaways and promotions have provided relief in an otherwise disappointing season. The team sold nearly 1,000 tickets for the outfield seating for “The Sandlot,” Bader said.

Every major league team has promotions and giveaways on their schedule, even those high up in the standings. The Washington Nationals, currently battling the Atlanta Braves for supremacy in the National League East and averaging nearly 31,000 fans a game, are giving away bobbleheads of five different players, and have theme nights planned around “Game of Thrones” and Oktoberfest.

Attracting the new fan is crucial, says Kerry Tan, an assistant professor of economics at Loyola University Maryland who has taught sports economics. “The promotion itself might be an attempt to boost attendance, but the hope is that might be a lingering effect, that my enjoyment of that game may lead me to want to attend a future game.”

And the benefits of a full stadium go beyond ticket revenue, Tan noted. Even the Ravens, with all their sellouts, want to ensure people actually sit in those seats.

“For the people who have tickets in hand but don’t actually go, the Ravens are losing out on concession sales and merchandise sales,” Tan said. “Those are people they would be generating extra revenue from.”

Still, all the giveaways and promotions and enticements are no substitute for on-field success. It’s no accident, Tan said, that the 2017 World Series champion Houston Astros are attracting big crowds this season, or that teams such as the Milwaukee Brewers, Braves and Arizona Diamondbacks, all near the top of the standings, are also doing well.

The Orioles’ numbers bear that truism out. In 2012, when the team surprised everyone by going from a chronic basement dweller to winning a wild-card berth in the playoffs, attendance increased from 1.76 million the previous year to more than 2.1 million. Two years later, when the team won its division, attendance climbed to nearly 2.5 million.

“The best way to sustain an increase in attendance,” Tan said, “is to put a winning team on the field.”

ckaltenbach@baltsun.com

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