When Cal Renner and his friends started making T-shirts five years ago to celebrate their favorite Orioles players, they didn't have much competition. Their principal clientele were what he called "Orioles hipsters" — those fans who were unfazed by more than a decade of losing seasons.
But by 2012, when the team posted its first winning record since 1997 and made its way into the postseason, sales started picking up. One popular item depicts a bubble gum-blowing centerfielder akin to (but, legally, not actually) Adam Jones.
Last season, as the O's won the American League East Division and made their way to the League Championship Series, sales exploded. Renner's company, OBP Apparel, started seeing imitators selling similar shirts, such as a "Macho Manny" concept inspired by acrobatic third baseman Manny Machado.
As fans gear up for what they hope will be a fourth consecutive winning season, orange fever is a windfall for some businesses — especially the team itself. The 4.5 percent increase in attendance last year, for example, meant not only greater gate receipts but also more eyeballs on sponsors' advertisements, allowing the team the opportunity to charge more for them this season.
Josh Gerber is vice president of marketing at Brick Bodies, the local gym chain that sponsors a "Flex Cam" during games.
"The buzz we got from it, there's really not a price you can put on that," he said. "I don't think we would have had the same effect or it would have went over so well if the Orioles weren't having such a great season."
The attention is all but guaranteed to carry over into this season — a larger base of season ticket-holders is flocking to Oriole Park, some drawn by the opportunity to get an early crack at playoff tickets. The team wouldn't give precise figures, but it sold enough full and partial plans that for the first time ever, not all holders were guaranteed seats at Friday's home opener.
The success likely means big profits for a team with a player payroll consistently below the major league average. The team's value rose 61 percent to hit $1 billion for the first time, according to Forbes, which pegged the Orioles as the 15th-most-valuable franchise among the 30 Major League Baseball teams.
Not everyone benefits from the economic boost. If the team weren't so hot, University of Maryland, Baltimore County economist Dennis Coates said, much of the money spent on Chris Davis jerseys or outings at Camden Yards would go toward something else. And little of the money comes from outside the region — despite the team's popularity last season, revenue at the city-owned Hilton hotel overlooking the ballpark slipped by $2.1 million in 2014.
"All we've really seen is a shift from one set of entertainment activities to another," Coates said. "That's not creating any big boost to the economy; it's just moving around."
The Orioles have seen a renaissance both on the field and off. Before 2012, fans endured 14 consecutive losing seasons, and attendance at Oriole Park at Camden Yards slumped below 2 million per season, to levels not seen since the 1980s, when the team still played out Memorial Stadium.
But attendance rose to 2.1 million in 2012, and last season reached nearly 2.5 million, an average of more than 30,000 per home game for the first time since 2005. Viewership on MASN, the television network the Orioles jointly own with the Washington Nationals, rose 50 percent from 2012 to 2013, the second-biggest jump in baseball.
If the weather is good and the team continues to perform well, team officials expect attendance to rise again in 2015. Spokesman Greg Bader said the team sold a flurry of season ticket plans last October because it meant a first chance at tickets to the team's 2014 postseason run, and sales have been strong since.
Patrick Bordner, who sold hot dogs, drinks and peanuts on Conway Street outside the game Friday, said fans will continue to be enthusiastic.
"They'll be here," he said. "The hype is built up."
Mark Nugent, who sold something called the Seat Monkey — an item in which fans can store cellphones, cameras, sunblock and snacks, said the team's recent success has stoked expectations.
"The excitement is building," he said.
That's good news to sponsors such as dental insurer United Concordia, said Donna Hunter, vice president of corporate administration and development. The insurer has sponsored the team for a decade and added its name to a "Smile Cam" feature in the stadium several years ago, she said.
The more fans have flocked to the park, she said, the more United Concordia's sales representatives hear from customers who have noticed the promotion.
"I think that just helps to reinforce that we're in where they work and where they play," Hunter said.
Brick Bodies added its Flex Cam to the lineup of video board entertainment last season. As the Orioles' success snowballed, Gerber said, the gym chain found its exposure did, too. It gained about 2,500 new Facebook followers over the year, almost a quarter of its total.
Sponsorships can include exposure both in the stadium and on radio and TV broadcasts. With a larger audience, the Orioles have more leverage to negotiate with businesses. Bader wouldn't disclose specifics, but said price tags for placements can fluctuate based on changes in the audience size.
A growing audience can also mean chances for new streams of revenue, too, he said. Forbes cited attendance growth in increasing its estimate of the Orioles' value.
"We certainly have opportunities that maybe weren't there a few years ago," Bader said.
John Vrooman, an economics professor at Vanderbilt University, called the Orioles' three-season winning streak "a dynasty" in the era of Peter Angelos. The team's payroll rose quickly after the lawyer bought the team in 1993 to more than one and a half times the Major League average. But its winning percentage plummeted in the late 1990s.
Of the team's five winning seasons since Angelos took over, three have occurred over the past three years, when the payroll has stabilized at about 90 percent of the league average.
Vrooman said the value of Oriole Park and the team's favorable cut of MASN revenues likely mean Forbes' estimate is actually conservative. He suggested the value of the franchise could be closer to $1.125 billion.
While success has enriched the team and at least some sponsors, it's difficult to say whether it's boosting the region, Coates said. Fans coming from out of town are what brings new tourism dollars to Baltimore, he said, and the Orioles aren't necessarily a major draw for visitors.
"The bottom line is it's good for the Orioles, but it doesn't do anything significant for the rest of the Baltimore economy," Coates said.
With popular former Orioles Nick Markakis and Nelson Cruz wearing other clubs' uniforms this season, some creativity is required in marketing a team that looks significantly different from the one that won the American League East last fall. New promotions include a "Kids' Opening Day" Sunday that offers young fans a chance to meet players and run out onto the field, and giveaways such as a premium-quality hooded sweatshirt and a garden gnome with the likeness of manager Buck Showalter.
Bader said he doesn't expect fans to hold the departure of the popular players against the team if it continues to offer exciting baseball.
"When those difficult player decisions have to be made, our fans now really do trust that [executive vice president for baseball operations] Dan [Duquette] and Buck are making the right decisions for the club for both now and in the future," he said.
And the new players create opportunities for companies such as OBP Apparel, the T-shirt company. While OBP is limited by the fact that it isn't officially licensed to depict team logos or player names, the independence also allows it to be nimble when fans develop a liking to a particular player.
The company is considering shirts inspired by newcomer Travis Snider and 2014 success story Steve Pearce, who it hopes leads the team to more success in 2015.
"We have the ability to strike while the iron is hot," Renner said. "We're looking for that next guy that's maybe going to be a breakout star."