O's make pitch to boost slumping season-ticket sales


The Orioles, suffering from slumps both on the field and at the turnstiles, will announce this week new incentives to buy season tickets, such as a complimentary wall clock, free admission to spring training games and a breakfast with manager Mike Hargrove.

The plan, called the "Orange Carpet Program," is designed to shore up interest in the team among its core fans.

By all indications, the organization has its work cut out for itself. The Orioles sold 2.7 million tickets last year, 14 percent fewer than the year before and the lowest total, other than in strike years, since moving to Oriole Park at Camden Yards in 1992. Attendance at the ballpark - once the gold standard of sports - fell to 10th place among baseball's 30 home fields.

"You need to do everything you can to retain your customers," said Orioles director of sales Matthew P. Dryer.

"We are trying to reward loyalty. Many of these season-ticket holders have been with us since Memorial Stadium," he said.

Team executives polled other teams and got together with avid supporters and the sales staff to brainstorm about how they could get fans to re-sign. Some of the ideas are borrowed - such as early admission to games, which the Atlanta Braves permit - and others are Orioles originals.

One has already been distributed: free passes to the Feb. 1 FanFest were sent to last year's season-ticket holders in holiday cards from the team. The annual event, held at the Baltimore Convention Center, features autograph sessions with players and begins the sale of tickets for the season. FanFest admission will be $10 for adults and $5 for youths, with $1 off for Giant bonus card holders.

Renewal invoices that were mailed Friday invite season-ticket buyers to a continental breakfast with players and coaches to be held on the morning of FanFest. The first 1,500 fans to call a response line will get tickets to the breakfast.

Ticket prices - which, on average, were the 14th most costly in baseball last year - were not changed for this year. Packages are being sold for 13, 29 or 81 games. The "six pack" promotion of six pre-packaged games was eliminated for this season. With tickets priced at $9 to $35, a season-ticket holder can expect to pay anywhere from $117 to $2,835, depending on the number of games purchased and quality of the seat.

Orange Carpet benefits will come with all season-ticket plans. Among the perks: entrance to the park on game days 30 minutes before other fans; discounts on team-related merchandise sold at stadium stores or online; free ballpark tours; free tickets to Orioles spring training games in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; and online chats with players and coaches. An Orioles wall clock will be sent to every season-ticket account holder at the start of the season.

The team has broadened season-ticket holders' flexibility to exchange tickets for different games. The "scalp-free zone," where all fans can buy and sell tickets, will also continue.

Stephen McDaniel, a professor of kinesiology at the University of Maryland at College Park who studies sports consumers, said the industry has been slow to adopt customer-satisfaction measures common in other businesses.

"Some of it has been a bit of marketing myopia about what they see themselves selling. Is it sports or sports and entertainment? They are beginning to see their product as going beyond just sports to broader entertainment," McDaniel said.

For the Orioles, who finished fourth in their division after losing 32 of their final 36 games, the time is right to add inducements. Besides suffering on the field, the team has lost several marquee players - chiefly Cal Ripken to retirement - and its stadium is no longer the attraction it once was, McDaniel said.

"You have to do something to stave off fan attrition," he said.

At least one fan found some of the incentives tempting - such as the early admission to games - but not enough to resume buying season tickets.

Ron Manno, who gave up his partial season plan several years ago, said he still considers himself a fan but is happy buying an occasional ticket and watching other games on TV.

"The wall clock isn't going to do it," Manno, of Baltimore, said. "When you go to a game, there seems to be no excitement anymore."

The team, with 14,000 season-ticket accounts, sold about 1.5 million tickets through season packages last season, down 25 percent from a peak of 2 million in the mid-1990s, Dryer said.

David Cope, a former marketing executive for several area sports teams, including the Orioles and Ravens, said teams first began offering incentives for skyboxes and club-level customers a decade or so ago and are now widening the scope to other fans.

"It is a trend across the four major-league sports," said Cope, director of business development for Gilco Sports & Entertainment Marketing in Bethesda.

The idea is especially important for teams such as the Orioles that aren't faring as well competitively as they had in the past and need to provide an alternative reason for people to buy seats. "I think it's a smart thing," Cope said.

Dryer said the Orioles hope to expand the program in future years. One idea under consideration is to add a VIP lounge for season-ticket holders, similar to the ones airlines operate at airports for their frequent flyers.

"I think it will be special to be part of the Orioles' season-ticket family," Dryer said. "This is probably something we should have done in 1992, but we didn't. You live and learn."

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