After strike, Orioles not boffo at box office


Enterprising Orioles fans have found a new way to get tickets: Buy them at the box office.

With attendance running 17 percent below last year and once-routine sellouts a thing of the past, Orioles games suddenly have become accessible again. No more need to haggle with scalpers or beg a co-worker with season tickets.

In fact, a last-minute decision by Clint Morris and a dozen of his work mates to catch a game last week required nothing more than a walk to the ticket windows at Camden Yards. He bought 13 tickets for that night's game.

"It's kind of cool. It was frustrating with the strike and everything, but it's helped me out," said Mr. Morris, a 24-year-old intensive-care unit nurse.

Fans have been taking out their frustration with baseball by staying home by the tens of thousands. Throughout the major leagues, attendance is down about 20 percent so far this season.

The Orioles, with an acclaimed stadium and an owner who opposed baseball's labor policies, are doing better than most. Average home attendance of 38,664 (through Thursday) is second only to the Colorado Rockies, who are playing their first year in a new stadium.

But the Orioles, who own a major-league record of 65 straight sellouts and came into this season having filled up 87 percent of their games at Camden Yards, haven't sold out since Opening Day. And even then, only about 43,000 of the 46,000 ticket holders actually showed up. That would be a common no-show rate for a midseason game, but not Opening Day.

The team has increased its advertising somewhat, but is not dropping prices or offering discounts as other teams have. In fact, Orioles ticket prices were raised an average of 18 percent this year, mostly in the pricey sections.

Some franchises -- the Boston Red Sox, New York Mets and Detroit Tigers -- have managed to increase attendance this year, and others have kept close to even. The Atlanta Braves are doing the worst.

The cooling of Orioles tickets -- once the hottest ticket in town -- has affected more than fans. Scalpers and brokers bear the brunt of ticket availability, and likely will feel more pain because the team last week designated a special "free trade zone" for fans to resell tickets before games.

"The better-quality seats are still in demand. But there is less demand for the 'get in' seats. They are priced to move," said the owner of Stagefront ticket brokers in Laurel, who asked that he not be identified.

What's good for the fan is bad for the Orioles in this case. Home ticket sales bring in roughly one of every three dollars the team earns and are by far its largest source of income.

That's typical in baseball, which depends more on ticket sales and less on television than football or basketball. If the drop in attendance continues, it could seriously damage the finances of a sport already claiming distress.

In the last completed season, 1993, the Orioles earned slightly more than $29 million from home ticket sales. A loss of 17 percent would mean almost $5 million in lost revenue compared with that year.

The ticket price increase offsets much of that, but the price boost would have been far more lucrative if the fans still were packing the house. And it doesn't replace lost concession sales that go with a drop in attendance.

"While we are not overjoyed that attendance is down a bit, there is no financial strain," said Joe Foss, Orioles vice chairman of finance.

Majority owner Peter Angelos attributes much of the decline to low group sales, which can account for as much as 15 percent of fans in the stadium. These packages are often tied to conventions and other events and are planned well in advance of the season. But this year, it wasn't clear there would be a season until a few weeks before it began.

Those sales are picking up, he said. The recent improvement in the team's on-field performance should help, too, he said.

"I think soon we will be sold out just as we were last year and the year before," Mr. Angelos said.

The strike-shortened season began with commitments for 2.8 million of the 3.3 million available tickets. The team is now on a course to finish the year with about 2.9 million tickets sold, Mr. Foss said.

Season-ticket sales returned to pre-strike levels shortly before the season started, he said. The team caps season tickets at 27,500 and hit that number this year by taking about 1,000 people off the 13,000-ticket waiting list, he said.

Ed Grigalus, a 38-year-old pharmaceutical salesman, buys hundreds of dollars' worth of tickets every season. His calendar/planner is color-coded to reflect games he wants to attend and games for which he has tickets for customers and associates.

"I'm enjoying the strike. It's making more tickets available for me," he said. "I'm going to take advantage of it."

Two weeks ago, he picked up $600 worth of tickets when he spotted some good seats available for coveted Boston and New York Yankees games. He said he used to have to pay scalpers for such good seats, but this year has been able to get most of what he needs at the box office.

He's also noticed more no-shows at the stadium, meaning that he and his friends have an easier time "upgrading" to better seats once the game begins.

Bill Mockabee, 30, a plastics salesman, said he gave up his mini-plan season tickets this season because he wasn't sure there would be a season. But he has been able to get into the games he wants without them.

"The last couple of years, if you had friends or clients in town, you didn't have that luxury," Mr. Mockabee said. "You don't have to plan in advance as much anymore."

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