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Orioles post successful business season despite falling short of playoffs

The Orioles' season did not end the way they wanted, a feeling players and fans will wrestle with this week as fellow contenders begin the postseason.

From the broader perspective of a franchise recovering from 15 years of losing, however, the Orioles posted a far more successful season. Not only did they manage a second consecutive winning record, they drew significantly more fans to Camden Yards and to watch games on the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network. They saw young stars such as Manny Machado and Chris Davis become some of the most popular merchandise movers in the sport.

Despite the club's absence from the playoffs, the Orioles brand appears stronger than it's been for at least a decade.

"It's the best it's been since 1997," said Robbie Davis Jr., owner of the Lutherville sports memorabilia shop Robbie's First Base. "Machado, Davis, Adam Jones. They're not just guys that people in Baltimore know. They're guys people around the country know. It's the first time the Orioles have had that in a long time."

The Orioles drew 2,357,551 fans to Camden Yards this season, their largest attendance since 2005. Their increase of about 255,000 fans from 2012 was fourth-largest in the sport, just behind the Washington Nationals. Overall attendance for Major League Baseball dipped by about 300 fans per game.

The Orioles' 12-percent attendance jump from 2012 to 2013 couldn't match their 16-percent jump from 2011 to 2012. But it fit the club's historical pattern following surprise seasons.

"It was similar to what we expected, given that we were in it all year but never really had that one big hot streak," said Greg Bader, the club's vice president of communications and marketing.

The Orioles did not get the kind of September bump they did the previous season, when every game mattered to the team's playoff chances. They also had to get by with fewer special-attraction dates, such as the six sculpture unveilings that drew large crowds in 2012.

Bader said the Orioles were particularly pleased to see their season-ticket base increase for the first time in several years. Though he wouldn't quantify the increase, he said the club expects similar growth this offseason.

More fans watched on television as well, with ratings for Orioles games on MASN increasing about 50 percent from 2012, the second-biggest jump in baseball, according to the club.

"They outperformed our estimates," said MASN senior vice president John McGuinness. Orioles owner Peter Angelos also owns a controlling interest in the network, which the Orioles share with the Washington Nationals.

McGuinness said corresponding advertising interest was such that the network was often low on inventory for retailers seeking commercial space during games.

The Orioles don't benefit as directly from increases in merchandise sales, given that all 30 major league clubs share equally in national merchandising revenues. But improved sales were another sign of the club's greater popularity.

For the calendar year to date, the Orioles held 2.54 percent of MLB's licensed apparel market, according to Charlotte-based industry analyst SportsOneSource. That's 12th highest in the league and a big leap from the 1.57 percent of the market the club held for the same period last year. The Orioles' market share remained solid in August and September, even though they failed to generate the same playoff push as in 2012.

"The Orioles definitely improved this year," said Matt Powell, an analyst for SportsOneSource.

One big difference from previous years was the club's star power. At the end of each season, MLB releases its list of the 20 best-selling player jerseys on MLB.com. From 2010-2012, the top 20 was devoid of Orioles. But Machado ranked fifth and Davis 16th on the recently released 2013 list, which ranked sales since the All-Star break.

Davis' prodigious home-run pace and Machado's precocious wizardry at third base put them on national highlight reels to a degree no Oriole had experienced since Cal Ripken Jr. retired.

"I think what that shows is that there's national and international interest, not just local interest," Bader said of the jersey sales. "You see your brand increasing its reach, and that's a good thing."

Robbie Davis Jr. said Machado is the king in his memorabilia shop. "He's going to be our Derek Jeter," he said of the 21-year-old third baseman. "Young kids like him. He's our own homegrown guy. The closest thing we've had to this is probably Ripken."

Having a star like that in town makes a huge difference to a local shop, Davis Jr. said.

McGuinness said young stars are important to television ratings as well. "We're seeing some of our most dynamic growth in the younger demographics," he said. "And I think a lot of that is kids identifying with these younger players."

But Powell said phenoms only take a club so far in the merchandising realm.

"What really moves the needle is winning the championship after not having won for years," he said. "I think Orioles fans believe the team can be competitive after 2012."

The Orioles' sales could slip if they don't make any significant offseason signings and fans sense stagnation, Powell added.

childs.walker@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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