The crowd at Camden Yards — a meager 7,915 — was the smallest in the history of the ballpark, if you don’t count April 29, 2015, when the fans were locked out for a game against the Chicago White Sox in the wake of the Freddie Gray unrest. The previous record low was 9,129 for a game against the Tampa Bay Rays on April 12, 2010.
That Monday night in 2010 was a bit warmer than this past Monday night, but it was during the worst of times for the Orioles, who were in the midst of a string of 14 losing seasons. It wasn’t much better Tuesday night when the Orioles drew an announced 8,640.
The sagging attendance that has plagued the Orioles since 2014 is not so easy to explain. The Orioles reached their highest point in 10 years in 2014 on the way to their first American League East title this century, and annual attendance has slipped every year since even though the team made the playoffs again in 2016.
The Freddie Gray situation and the tragic spike in homicides that followed it almost certainly had an effect on the number of tourists coming to town to enjoy one of the most attractive baseball stadiums in the country. But the impact on both visiting and local fans should’ve diminished instead of increased over the past three years.
The case can be made that things are tough all over. The Ravens have been trying to quell a fan revolt that grew out of the NFL’s national anthem controversy. Maryland football attendance has dropped 16 percent since the Terps’ inaugural 2014 season in the Big Ten.
Even the Preakness faces the possibility of declining corporate revenues, perhaps tied to the recent changes in the federal tax code that reduce the ability to write off entertainment expenses, which might also impact the Orioles and other professional sports teams.
It’s possible to partially explain away Monday night’s record number of empty seats to a one-day national trend. Each of the 12 ballparks that hosted a major league game Monday night registered a season-low attendance and only three of them were populated with more than 20,000 fans.
Weather played a role in a lot of those cities. The season started early and April has been unseasonably chilly so far. Throw in the fact that Monday was a school night and that’ll probably cover it for some of those home teams.
“Early-April games, especially when the weather is poor, present a challenge,” Orioles vice president of communications and marketing Greg Bader said. “There are always going to be games that are more desirable than others. And the Orioles’ generous ticket policy, which is the most fan-friendly in baseball, allows season-ticket plan members to exchange their tickets on a dollar-for-dollar basis.
“Many fans elect to trade games in the early part of the season — when the weather is less than desirable — for games later in the year on a day of the week or versus a preferred opponent.”
Still, 7,915 is a surprisingly low number for a stadium that was sold out through much of the 1990s, regardless of a low-40s temperature or a traditionally unpopular opponent. The Blue Jays and Rays have long been a tough draw at Camden Yards, as evidenced by the fact that the last three record-low games featured one of those two teams.
Regardless of the opponent, if you go back over the past decade or so, you’ll find that just about every season featured a three-game series in early April that drew an average of about 10,000 fans per game.
This series might set a record low, but Bader shot down the notion that the lowest single-game attendance figure can be viewed as a reflection of a sharply diminished season-ticket base.
“That is not a fair representation of our season ticket base,” he said.
The Orioles do not release season-ticket figures, but they obviously don’t sell nearly the number that they sold during their first decade playing at Oriole Park, when the demand was so great that the team had to cut off season-ticket sales to make sure there were tickets for walk-up fans and tourists.
The franchise has faced a more challenging environment since the Washington Nationals arrived in the region in 2005, though it has made up for a sharp decline in attendance from the D.C. area with revenue from its favorable split of the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network revenues.
Since then, the club has sought to increase attendance with an aggressive promotional calendar each year and the Orioles also feature some of the most liberal policies allowing fans to exchange tickets and bring their own food into the ballpark.
The Orioles made a dynamic marketing move this spring in an attempt to increase attendance and make Camden Yards the sport’s most kid-friendly baseball park. The “Kids Cheer Free” program, which allows each adult who pays regular price for an upper-deck seat to bring two children (9 years old or younger) along for free, should help fill that upper deck and enhance parking and concession revenues.
It also is a way to attract a new generation of young Orioles fans at a time when kids have been showing declining interest in Major League Baseball. Getting as many kids as possible into the habit of coming to the ballpark could pay dividends for decades.
That won’t help much on a miserable night like Monday, when there were early weather forecasts that included snow in the northern suburbs, but it could make a big difference when the weather warms up and schools let out.
What didn’t help early-season attendance was the team’s quiet offseason. The Orioles were coming off their worst season of the Dan Duquette-Buck Showalter era and fans spent the winter wondering how the team was going to compete with half of a starting rotation.
Duquette promised to bring in two more solid starters, and he eventually kept that promise. But solid veteran Andrew Cashner wasn’t signed until after the start of spring training and top-three free-agent starting pitcher Alex Cobb arrived nearly two months after FanFest and the traditional kick-off period for advance ticket sales.
If that wasn’t enough of an attendance headwind, the Orioles followed their uplifting Opening Day victory with an ugly five-game losing streak. They bounced back with an exciting four-game series win over the New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium, but that was probably too late to help them fill seats for the current three-game set against the Blue Jays.
What’s fairly clear is that Monday night was the result of a perfect storm. The season started early. The weather was unusually frigid. The Orioles weren’t able to build enough anticipation during the winter. It was the first home game on a school night. And, well, nobody wants to see the Blue Jays even without Baltimore villain José Bautista on the roster.