Advertisement

As improving Orioles court new fans, there’s a delicate dance in shared territory with Nationals

Thank you for supporting our journalism. This article is available exclusively for our subscribers, who help fund our work at The Baltimore Sun.

Like uneasy roommates, the Orioles and Washington Nationals share a single, population-rich marketing territory extending from Pennsylvania into North Carolina.

Unlike the NFL — which strictly assigns portions of the Baltimore-Washington region to either the Ravens or Washington Commanders to protect each team’s marketing efforts — Major League Baseball does not delineate in which areas the Orioles or Nationals can promote themselves.

Advertisement

That means the clubs must make delicate calculations about how and where to market themselves in their vast territory — it’s larger than some European countries — without antagonizing each other. The clubs, who meet in a two-game series beginning Tuesday in Washington, already are entangled in a decadelong dispute over how much the Nationals should receive in rights fees from the Orioles-controlled Mid-Atlantic Sports Network that shows both teams’ games.

The franchises are outwardly cordial — it helps that they are in different leagues — and both teams’ front offices appear motivated to keep it that way, even as they seek opportunities to expand their fan bases.

Advertisement

“I think a thoughtfully done outreach program into the Washington, D.C., area and suburbs is dramatically different than a guerrilla marketing technique. We’re professional, they’re professional,” said Greg Bader, the Orioles’ senior vice president for administration and experience.

The Orioles are trying to capitalize on the buzz surrounding this season’s team by increasing online advertising in the Washington region and elsewhere in the six-state territory, according to team executives.

The Oriole Bird points at "Teddy Roosevelt" after pushing him to the ground Sept. 14, 2022, in front of "George Washington," left, and "Thomas Jefferson" while participating in the Presidents Race in Washington.

While the team’s games have long been broadcast in Washington’s television and radio markets, this season marks the debut of “Orioles Preview,” a weekly show on WSBN-AM (630 AM), a sports station in the nation’s capital that is an Orioles radio affiliate.

“There were at least a couple generations where the Orioles were the home team here,” said Andy Pollin, the show’s host. “Those generations are fathers and grandfathers, and I think they feel a connection to the Orioles.”

Washington was exclusively Orioles territory before the Nationals — the former Montreal Expos — arrived for the 2005 season.

The Nationals, who won the 2019 World Series, are rebuilding after trading away stars Max Scherzer, Trea Turner and Juan Soto and aren’t expected to finish near .500.

The Orioles are a hot marketing commodity, having grown in popularity in the past year and built a core of bankable young stars, most notably 2019 No. 1 overall draft pick and 2022 American League Rookie of the Year runner-up Adley Rutschman.

“When you have a product on the field that’s successful and has a lot of intriguing players, you can get more eyeballs, you can get more bodies in the seats,” Bader said. “The Nationals have the exact same ability to market themselves from southern Pennsylvania to North Carolina. And then it becomes what the teams philosophically believe is possible and where their best dollars are spent.”

Advertisement

That’s where things can get sensitive.

In 2008, the Nationals sent Screech, their bald-eagle mascot, and the Racing Presidents — the bigheaded renditions of Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson — to the Inner Harbor to distribute freebies such as Nationals pocket schedules. The Oriole Bird mascot was also there promoting an impending Orioles-Nationals series.

Nationals second baseman Luis Garcia tags out Orioles infielder Gunnar Henderson on a steal attempt Sept. 13, 2022, in Washington.

In 2015, the Orioles purchased a billboard advertisement about 7 miles from Nationals Park depicting the team’s star players and touting an “O’MAZING TIME.” The billboard rankled some Washington sports radio hosts and fans who believed the team had crossed an unwritten line.

This season, the Orioles’ outreach is subtler. Like a base runner taking a lead, the club is wary of straying too far.

The team says boosting its digital advertising means fans in a targeted area from Pennsylvania to Virginia — including Washington — are more likely than before to see Orioles promotions on websites and other platforms. Outside Baltimore and Washington, the York, Pennsylvania, area is the team’s largest market.

After a four-year run on WJZ-FM (105.7 The Fan), Orioles radio broadcasts returned last season to WBAL-AM (WBAL NewsRadio 1090), which has a particularly strong signal the team believes helps it reach more distant fans.

Advertisement

While the Orioles have not reached the postseason since 2016, they finished as the best American League club to miss the field last season and are expected to contend for a spot again this year.

“We definitely saw a boost last season from July through the end of the year when the team was in that short window of a playoff run,” said T.J. Brightman, a senior vice president and chief revenue officer. “We saw a boost in our attendance and a ratings increase.”

The Orioles averaged 16,893 fans per home game last season, according to Baseball Reference, while the Nationals averaged 25,017. That ranked them 24th and 17th, respectively, among 30 MLB teams.

The Orioles declined to say how large their season ticket base is or to estimate what percentage of their fans reside in Washington or its suburbs.

The Morning Sun

Daily

Get your morning news in your e-mail inbox. Get all the top news and sports from the baltimoresun.com.

“We still have a very large number of Orioles fans who remain in the Maryland-D.C. suburbs and in northern Virginia, and we continue to want to reach them through games on television and radio, and also through marketing and great content,” Bader said.

The Nationals declined to comment. The team’s ownership has been exploring a sale, a process complicated by the lingering legal dispute over how much MASN, which is majority-controlled by the Orioles, owes the Nationals for the rights to show their games.

Advertisement

The clubs share a network and a territory, but their fan bases are distinct.

“In hockey, a lot of Baltimore fans drive to see the Caps play,” said former MASN commentator Phil Wood, who also hosted a Nationals postgame radio show. “But there are two separate markets for football and two separate markets for baseball.”

Many Nationals fans resent Orioles owner Peter Angelos for opposing Washington’s bid for a team because of concern that his club couldn’t endure the loss of its exclusive market. With Angelos, 93, incapacitated for health reasons, the Orioles are overseen by his son John, the franchise’s chairman and CEO.

But there remains an untold number of fans who might ardently back one team but don’t mind sneaking peeks at the other. The Orioles’ and Nationals’ stadiums are about 40 miles apart.

“I like the Orioles team, stadium and players, but not their ownership,” said retiree Chris Alvord, a longtime Nationals fan from northern Virginia now living in Florida. “I will be back to Oriole Park at Camden Yards to see games — maybe for the playoffs.”


Advertisement