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Orioles begin to look at updating Camden Yards

The Baltimore Orioles are considering updates to Oriole Park at Camden Yards, the 23-year-old stadium still celebrated for its red-brick hominess and retro charm.

Representatives of the team and its state landlord say they foresee a balancing act as they ponder possible renovations. Their goal is to ensure the ballpark maximizes revenues for the club and possesses state-of-the-art amenities without sacrificing the ambience of a venue many fans say feels like home.

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The stadium, with the brick B&O Warehouse as the right field backdrop, is rated among the best in Major League Baseball in fan and media surveys. But most of the 29 other teams have opened new ballparks since Camden Yards' 1992 debut, when it was the forerunner of a new generation of baseball-only stadiums in downtown areas.

The latest stadiums incorporate design elements — such as open concourses commanding views of the game — that Camden Yards lacks. Many also include stadium clubs for VIPs that offer prime, low-level field views.

There is no timetable for Camden Yards upgrades, and none are imminent. The club's original stadium lease expires in 2021 and provides the Orioles an option to extend for five years.

"Typically, when you see a very large amount of capital expenditure, it comes with a new lease negotiation," said Michael Frenz, executive director of the Maryland Stadium Authority, the landlord of both the Orioles and the Baltimore Ravens on behalf of the state.

The last major addition to Camden Yards came in 2012 with the opening of the popular Roof Deck bar behind center field.

Newer venues, such as Nationals Park in Washington and Marlins Park in Miami, have fewer seats than Camden Yards, which holds 45,971 — about 2,500 less than when it opened, but more areas where fans can congregate. In older stadiums, concourses are utilitarian areas designed simply to access rest rooms and concession stands. Although they attract some natural light, the Camden Yards' concourses offer few glimpses of the field.

"If it were being built today, it would presumably include those elements," Frenz said. "The view of the field is one. If you're in the club level [concourse or restaurants], you really don't see the field."

Team officials have talked informally with the authority about the possibility of removing terrace box seats to open up field views, he said.

"We really haven't done a deep dive on what that might cost," Frenz said. "I think it would be depending on the scope."

But Frenz and a team official said the discussions are very preliminary and nothing specific is planned. While the club is constantly studying the state-of-the-art in ballpark and other entertainment venue developments, it hasn't hired an architect to develop plans, according to an Orioles official.

Experts say fans' stadium habits have changed since Camden Yards opened, and the club is eager to respond to those shifts.

"Fans no longer watch games by sitting in their seats," said Robert Boland, a professor of sports business at Ohio University. "They watch games by consuming all that the venue has."

Boland said teams are re-evaluating the traditional use of stadium space and considering rooftop decks "or party areas or other aspects like that. Or revenue-producing plazas inside the stadium itself as opposed to out on the street."

He said Camden Yards was built for the long haul.

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"I don't think it's in any danger of being antiquated at 25 years. It was so well designed and so well put together, I think it will really have a 100-years lifespan," said Boland, adding: "I think the Orioles are right to be looking in this direction. They need to not slumber on the relevance of their stadium economically."

While the new center field bar proved popular, other clubs have gone bigger. In 2014, the Colorado Rockies opened an $11 million rooftop "party deck" above right field.

"The idea is that younger fans prefer a more social experience," Frenz said. "As technology changes and people change, the way they want to experience venue changes."

Analysts say the stadium revenue model also has shifted since 1992.

In the new model, stadiums have become smaller and teams "want high-end people flocking to the game" and joining exclusive clubs offering top seats and other benefits, said J.C. Bradbury, a sports economist at Kennesaw State University.

At Atlanta's Turner Field, Braves fans are invited to join the Sun Trust Club offering a private entrance and oversized, padded seats. "Their first five rows are closer to home plate than the pitcher," Bradbury said.

Orioles officials declined to speculate on what sorts of amenities might work at Camden Yards.

But Boland said there could be a tradeoff to teams "converting their best seats into some version of a lounge."

While clubs would net additional revenue, "maybe that would destroy some of the character" of the ballpark by providing such significant perks to "high rollers" who are often conspicuously absent from their seats, he said.

Camden Yards was designed by Populous, the architectural firm in Kansas City, Mo., then called HOK. Inquiries to the firm about Camden Yards were referred to architect Joe Spear, who was unavailable for comment on Monday.

Interviewed at a recent game, Orioles fans sounded protective of their stadium.

"Maybe a few things they could update, but keep it a ballpark," said Damian Clar, 30, of Ellicott City, as he enjoyed the Roof Deck bar, which he deemed appropriate.

"People come here, it's got a great atmosphere," he said. "What happens when you take a classic ballpark and you modernize it is they turn it into an amusement park and it loses the whole thrill of what a ballpark is about. It's about everybody coming together and supporting a team, and that's what's most important at the end of the day."

Clar's friend, Tyler Grimshaw, 30, of Columbia, said the Orioles "have done a really good job of incorporating new features into the stadium to kind of modernize it" but that the team could go further.

"A lot of the modern stadiums have open views when you walk in and I think that some of those would really benefit Oriole Park," Grimshaw said.

The Orioles and the state could potentially tap several different revenue sources for future renovations.

The club could use its own funds. The state holds a capital expenditure account that might be used. And since there is some retired debt on Camden Yards, new bonds could be issued to finance improvements.

Camden Yards cost $110 million to build. Keeping it up to date now "saves you from building a billion-dollar stadium" later, Boland said.

Baltimore Sun reporter Ryan Baillargeon contributed to this article

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