Oriole Park at Camden Yards will begin the 2011 baseball season with a new concessionaire, wider seats in many areas and more casual seating options as part of a campaign to coax fans from in front of their high-definition television sets and back into the downtown ballpark.
The Orioles are also exploring plans to eliminate up to 12 corporate skyboxes along the left and right field lines and replace them with larger group-sales venues and party suites offering a greater variety of seating and entertainment arrangements.
The changes were disclosed Tuesday as the Maryland Stadium Authority is completing the final phase of seat replacement in the Oriole Park seating bowl. Last year, all seats in the lower level, from foul pole to foul pole, were replaced. The work is to conclude this off-season, with the stadium authority repairing concrete and replacing seats in the lower-level outfield, the club level and the upper deck.
Stadium authority members gave the green light to the changes, which include the creation of "viewing platforms" on the club level, with bistro tables, bar stools and a "drink rail" down the left field and right field lines. Seat widths will increase on the club level and upper deck from 18 inches to 22 inches, and new railings will be installed to improve sightlines in some locations.
"This new style of casual seating in select areas will enhance the experience of Oriole Park for fans looking for a more social atmosphere," said Orioles spokesman Greg Bader. "These additions, along with new seats throughout the ballpark, are designed to make our fans more comfortable while preserving the Camden Yards aesthetic."
While seating options will increase, the total number of actual seats at Oriole Park will drop by more than 2,300, from 48,290 to 45,971. The change will be the first major reduction in seats at the ballpark since it opened to great acclaim in 1992 and will put its capacity more in line with that of newer parks, which have between 39,000 and 44,000 seats.
The number of corporate suites on the club level would potentially drop from 72 skyboxes plus three party suites in 1992 to fewer than 50 in 2011, a response to the disappearance of some corporations in Baltimore and a corresponding drop in demand for corporate skyboxes.
The Maryland Stadium Authority is expected to consider the skybox proposals as early as December. Final approval for any changes to Oriole Park's seating bowl must also be approved by the state Board of Public Works, which is scheduled to consider the changes starting on Nov. 17.
The Orioles also announced today an agreement with Delaware North Corp. of Buffalo, N.Y. to serve as the ballpark's exclusive concessionaire.
The new concessionaire will replace Aramark Corp., which had served the Baltimore ballpark since it opened in 1992. The Orioles announced last month that the team would sever its relationship with Aramark, one of the nation's largest food service operators.
Delaware North is the concessionaire at Target Field in Minneapolis and at the Jets' and Giants' new home in the Meadowlands, among other parks. Its Baltimore contract is to run through the end of the Orioles' lease at Camden Yards, which expires at the conclusion of the 2021 season.
In September, Aramark told Maryland regulators that it might lay off more than 600 employees if its food and retail service contract with the Orioles was not renewed. The Orioles said Aramark workers probably would be offered jobs by a new concessionaire.
As part of its contract, Delaware North is expected to invest $11 million for new equipment and furnishings and introduce new dining concepts, such as kitchens that will allow patrons to watch as their food is prepared.
Orioles and stadium authority representatives say the physical changes, expected to cost about $1.5 million, are a response to trends affecting teams throughout Major League Baseball. They include the recent construction of smaller stadiums, a reduced demand for corporate suites as a result of the recession, and the advent of large-screen TV and home theaters with high-quality sound and sharp pictures, and a decline in attendance over the years.
They say the changes will help attract people who might otherwise choose to watch the Orioles on television. Attendance at Orioles games in 2010 was 1.73 million people, down from an all-time high of 3.71 million in 1997. The impact on ticket prices has not been disclosed.
A major goal is to improve the fans' experience and increase opportunities for socializing without changing what made Oriole Park so popular in the first place, said Janet Marie Smith, the Orioles' vice president of planning and development.
"It used to be that you had to be at the game," Smith said. "Then it was that TV [reception] was so good that you didn't have to go to the game. Now we're trying to give people a reason to come back to the ballpark again. We want to make sure that fans realize there is something that is exciting about the ambiance of the ballpark than can't be replicated in your living room."
Part of the new strategy is to introduce seating options that reflect the way people watch sports today, Smith said.
"Twenty years ago, the only kind of seating in a sports venue was a seat or a suite," she said. "Today, stadiums have bars with views of the playing field [and] restaurants with views of the playing field. There are a multitude of options."
"It will enhance the ballpark experience for the fan," said Michael Frenz, executive director of the stadium authority. "Without changing the basic nature of the ballpark, which they don't want to do, it allows people to experience the ballpark the way they live today."
The changes have been in the planning stages for the past year, ever since Smith returned to the Orioles after overseeing renovations to Fenway Park in Boston. Some of the concepts that are being proposed for Oriole Park have already been introduced at Fenway Park, such as the advent of bistro tables and bar stool seating above the " Green Monster" behind left field there.
According to the Orioles, recently opened ballparks such as Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia, with 43,651 seats, Nationals Park in Washington, D.C., with 41,545 seats, and Minnesota's Target Field, with 39,504 seats, all have capacities smaller than Oriole Park.
Money for the improvements is coming largely from a deferred maintenance fund that has already been approved by the stadium authority. All the changes are expected to be finished in time for the start of the 2011 season in April.
Smith, who was instrumental in planning Oriole Park in the early 1990s, said she credits the stadium authority and Orioles owner Peter Angelos with recognizing the need to improve it to keep up with the times and yet preserve the features that have made the stadium successful since it opened.
The changes won't have an impact on the "picture postcard view" of the seating area, Smith said: "We just want to loosen it up a little."
An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated which concessionaire handles Turner Field in Atlanta. The Baltimore Sun regrets the error.