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A new season begins at Camden Yards

The Baltimore Sun

Here's the challenge facing the 2008 Orioles: How do you sell fans on a team that has had 10 straight losing seasons, has traded two of its biggest stars and has seen attendance dwindle with the club's on-field fortunes?

You stress that you play in Camden Yards - still one of the best stadiums in baseball - and focus on the team's future with new management and young players. And, with the home opener just hours away, you hope the strong traditional ties between the franchise and its fans remain.

That's the basis of the team's 2008 marketing slogan, "This is Birdland." But is it enough to draw fans back to the ballpark and renew interest in the Orioles?

"Change always benefits an organization," said John Moag, founder of Moag & Co., a Baltimore-based investment banking firm that specializes in sports. "Having said that, you still have to produce. There's a temporary benefit from people wanting to check out the new thing. But in the end, if you don't produce wins, it's only temporary."

The Orioles could see an early bump in attendance from hopeful fans, said Kirk Wakefield, a professor at Baylor University who studies team sports marketing. "The problem with trying to market hope," he said, "is that it only takes a little while for fans to find out how that's going to go for you."

Asked if the Orioles are worried about skeptical fans, team spokesman Greg Bader said, "I think we have an advantage in that Andy [MacPhail, the club president] and Dave [Trembley, the manager] have been so clear in communicating their plan."

MacPhail, who has said this year will be a potentially painful yet necessary step toward a better future, also sounded unconcerned.

"I'm not in charge of marketing, but we do want to stamp a certain characteristic to the team and we've talked about it," he said. "The fans will be remarkably forgiving if you give them energy, if you give them effort and if you give them enthusiasm. If you do those things, in my experience, they'll pretty much stick with it."

O's fan Randy Lotz, a Baltimore songwriter who penned a protest song about the Orioles that caught on during the fan walkout in late 2006, said he is encouraged that MacPhail is in charge of the rebuilding effort. But he remains wary of owner Peter Angelos' involvement.

"I think fans should be optimistic with a lot of pessimism mixed in," Lotz said. "Optimism is a first step, but I'm not jumping on this because who knows what will happen? They might need to make a trade in July and Angelos might get in the way. It's a fragile situation."

Baseball attendance trends are pretty basic. The more games a team wins, the more fans come to the park. There are the rare franchises such as the Boston Red Sox and Chicago Cubs, which filled their nostalgic ballparks even when they were losing. But the Orioles drew 27,060 fans a game last season, 23rd in the league and the second-worst figure since the club moved to Camden Yards in 1992.

Beyond losing customers because of their poor record, the Orioles will have to compete with a new baseball stadium in Washington.

"There's going to be a level of excitement about the opening that will certainly have an impact on their ability to draw from the D.C. area," Moag said.

Bader said he's not concerned that the new park will dim fans' appreciation of Camden Yards, which can seat 48,290, and predicted that the Orioles will still draw from around the region.

On the plus side, the Orioles feel they'll give fans a better live experience with a larger, sharper video screen and new scoreboards around the park. They'll also present 40 games in high-definition on the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network.

More importantly, team officials feel they can offer a compelling narrative of rebirth, one starring young players such as outfielders Nick Markakis and Adam Jones.

Bader said fans seem "more excited now than they have been in recent memory. They believe in Andy and the direction we're headed."

The team slogan, "This is Birdland," is not an explicit nod to rebuilding. But promotional materials will emphasize young stars and MacPhail's blueprint for the future.

The club does not release sales figures for season tickets, but Bader said, "We've seen a level of enthusiasm in our season holders that's at least equal to what we've experienced recently."

Wakefield said the Orioles are smart to market the ballpark experience and said they might also be able to get fans excited about individual stars rather than team success.

"You have to work with elements you can count on," he said. "What you don't want to do is set up expectations that can't be met."

Players said they'll do their best to win games, but several veterans acknowledged that fresh faces have to be part of the club's pitch for 2008. Orioles second baseman Brian Roberts, frequently mentioned as the next player to be traded, might not be part of the future but said fans got what they've been clamoring for this offseason.

"You're certainly going to see a lot of young guys that are the future of the organization, guys like Markakis, Adam Jones, Adam Loewen, [Jeremy] Guthrie and all these guys that we got in the trades," Roberts said. "That's what fans wanted to see. They wanted to see something change here so they got rid of [Erik] Bedard, got rid of Miguel [Tejada], and this is what we got. So come out and see what we got."

Reliever Jamie Walker cut to the chase.

"The only way you can market a team is to win," he said. "You just have to win. I'm not good on the marketing part. I don't know nothing about that. But I do know if you want people to come out and follow the team, you play good baseball and you win games."

A look at attendance trends for teams that have rebuilt in recent years shows that Walker is exactly right. The Orioles might see a modest bump if their young players thrive this season but probably won't see a real surge of ticket buying until they approach contention.

"You can't cure a bad product with promotion," said Wakefield, the Baylor professor.

Detroit might be the most dramatic example of a recent rebuilding team. The Tigers were in the attendance dumps, drawing only 17,103 a game as they went 43-119 in 2003. They gained almost 7,000 fans a game in 2004, after general manager Dave Dombrowski signed catcher Ivan Rodriguez and traded for shortstop Carlos Guillen. They were up to 32,048 when they made the playoffs in 2006, then drew 37,618 a game last year.

Dombrowski said he had credibility with the fans in mind when he made player moves after the 2003 nadir.

"We would have run out of time and patience with our fans," he said, in explaining why he didn't simply wait for help from the farm system.

Most observers predict that fans will return to Camden Yards in droves if the club's fortunes change. Even a strong start in 2005 prompted a surge of ticket buying.

Orioles fan Lotz said he and his 15-year-old son, who's too young to remember the last winning version of the Orioles, have stayed away from the park in recent seasons because of the poor quality of baseball. But Lotz said they will attend more games this season.

"If nothing else, it's interesting," he said. "That's better than the apathy of the last few years. They're still going to be bad, but at least they might be bad for the right reasons."

For now, players and team officials say they've earned faith that they're moving toward happier days.

"What they've done has been phenomenal," Orioles veteran Kevin Millar said of the offseason moves. "They got some real talent back. I think it's an exciting time for us. New fresh blood is always pretty exciting."

childs.walker@baltsun.com

Sun reporter Jeff Zrebiec contributed to this article.

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