The Orioles are in a playoff hunt, but attendance to Camden Yards has been low. We talk with Oriole fans about why so many seats are empty. (Baltimore Sun video)
When the Orioles took the field to begin their most important series of the season — four games against the rival Boston Red Sox that could determine their playoff fate — they were greeted by row upon row of empty green seats at Camden Yards.
That the Orioles averaged 19,903 fans over the first three games of the series — less than half of the ballpark's capacity of 45,971 — was only the latest data point in a story that has puzzled Baltimore baseball lovers all season. The Orioles spent liberally in the offseason and have exceeded expectations on the field. But as they drive for a third playoff berth in five seasons, fans are not filling Camden Yards.
The Orioles have suffered the fifth-largest attendance drop in Major League Baseball, residing near noncontenders such as the Minnesota Twins and the Milwaukee Brewers. Though MLB attendance is down slightly overall compared to 2015, the drop of 2,602 fans per game in Baltimore was more than 10 times the average decline going into Wednesday's games. The Orioles averaged 26,514 a game entering Wednesday.
"The fans' impact at Camden Yards is unbelievable. I think they know that. I think they understand that. The players understand that," center fielder Adam Jones said before Wednesday's game. "Obviously, this week and this last homestand, this last 11 games, are arguably the most important games of the season. We've fought our tails off for 150 games to put ourselves into a unique situation in September. That's what you say, you want to play important September baseball, and part of September baseball, especially if you're in the East, is the fans."
Everyone seems to have a different theory as to why — increased ticket prices, oppressive heat this summer, fan complacency after five years of winning and some people feeling uneasy about coming downtown in the wake of last year's civil unrest after Freddie Gray died.
The Orioles declined to discuss the issue in detail. "We are looking forward to these final home games and hope to see Orioles fans out at the Yard to maximize our home-field advantage as we battle for a spot in the postseason," said Greg Bader, the club's vice president of communications.
But the empty seats have become an awkward talking point at a time when the Orioles are thriving on the field and by other measures of fan interest.
For example, television ratings for the team's games on the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network are among the best in the sport.
"There are great players on the team and they are easy to like, too, so I feel bad for the guys that the crowds aren't there to support them in the final weeks of the season," said Julie Saxenmeyer, a season-ticket holder from Cockeysville. "But I think the front office and particularly the marketing department need to look inward. In a perfect world, would a team that's been in or around first place for the entire season need to market itself to draw fans? Of course not, but this is the reality. Deal with the reality."
The Orioles are part of a larger story as museums and other downtown entertainment destinations struggled to rebuild their audiences in the months after Gray's death.
"It's no secret. There's no question the unrest has had a toll," said Auburn Bell, an adjunct professor of marketing at Loyola University. "Others have seen a downturn in attendance across the arts and cultural area."
But officials at the Maryland Zoo and with the convention arm of Visit Baltimore said business has been healthy this year, so it's not bleak everywhere.
The Orioles were particularly affected last year by the unrest after Gray's death, with fans barred from Camden Yards entirely for one game and ordered not to leave the stadium for safety reasons during another. The team also had a home series moved to St. Petersburg, Fla., home of the Tampa Bay Rays. Because the team typically sells more than 60 percent of its tickets before the season, the impact of the 2015 unrest wouldn't have fully manifested itself until this year.
The club's natural market is small relative to other teams, with a base of about 3 million people if you include outlying counties such as Frederick and York, Pa. By comparison, the Washington metropolitan area, which belonged to the Orioles before the Washington Nationals began play in 2005, is about twice as big. The Nationals' average attendance in 2016 is about 4,600 more than the Orioles', but it has declined by about 1,500 a game compared to last season.
Tourism officials are also puzzled by the Orioles' attendance numbers as well. The Downtown Partnership of Baltimore has tried to help the team attract fans.
"The partnership has worked with the Orioles on ticket packages of reduced-price seats to downtown residents," spokesman Michael Evitts said. "'I'm disappointed at how the numbers have gone. I can't say why. We had kind of a rainy spring. I feel like the Orioles are pulling out all the stops."
The small crowds have dampened sales at Pickles Pub, one of the downtown businesses most directly dependent on ballpark traffic.
"Obviously, when they're not selling out the stadium, it's going to affect business here," Pickles manager Craig Ziegenhein said. "As an Orioles fan myself, it's disappointing to see. It just doesn't make sense to me."
Ziegenhein said he's reluctant to pinpoint any single reason and remains hopeful for big crowds this weekend, as well as for any potential playoff games.
This issue would have been inconceivable five years ago, when Orioles fans were starved for any hint of a pennant race after 14 straight losing seasons.
They begged for homegrown stars, investments in big-ticket free agents and a more stable front office.
And the Orioles have largely delivered since 2012, playing .500 or better baseball each season during that stretch under manager Buck Showalter and a core built around third baseman Manny Machado, Jones and first baseman Chris Davis.
They spent freely last winter to keep the roster largely intact, increasing their payroll by about a third to almost $150 million
This year, they're on track for another playoff appearance and threatening a club record for home runs. Machado and closer Zach Britton, both products of the Orioles' minor league system, are candidates for Most Valuable Player and the Cy Young Award, respectively.
Yet fans say they're not entirely satisfied for reasons ranging from the cost of attending games to the club's inability to build a top-notch starting rotation.
"It's not safe to go to games at night any longer," he said. "Orioles ticket prices are high. Concessions are extremely high for food and drink. No one can afford those prices."
After a record-breaking year of violence in Baltimore in 2015, when there were a per-capita record 344 homicides, this year is tracking not far behind: Homicides are down slightly, but nonfatal shootings and overall violent crime are up.
Shortly after Davis signed a club-record $161 million deal, the Orioles announced increased ticket prices for the 2016 season — an average hike of about $5 a game for both season and individual tickets.
The prices are still cheaper than the MLB average, but fan after fan cited the cost increase in explaining why they're more likely to remain at home and watch on television.
"I can't pinpoint the exact reason, but bang for your buck could be one," said Rich Gray, a lifelong fan who lives in Somers Point, N.J., and has cut back on his trips to Camden Yards. "It seemed more of an experience in years past. I have spent so much money on the Orioles in tickets, hotels, gas, paying for MASN in coastal New Jersey and clothing that I guess it was time to slow it down. … As a fan, you get disappointed they spend money on Davis and get no pitching."
Attendance increased steadily from 2012, when the Orioles made the playoffs for the first time in 15 years, through 2014, when they won their first American League East title in 17 years, before falling slightly last season. But this year's steeper decline has surprised many.
Though fans mentioned safety concerns, few cited the aftermath of Gray's death as a singular cause for the attendance drop.
"I'm sure people will try to pin this on last year's unrest in the city, but I think goes beyond that," Saxenmeyer said. "Certainly you can't discount the fact that there was a pretty steep increase in ticket prices. My season ticket partners and I almost didn't renew when the cost went up more than 20 percent. They did spend money on the team in the offseason, so an increase was somewhat justified, but it's not like the higher payroll improved the team vastly."
The Orioles reeled in a significant number of 2015 season-ticket buyers by making those season plans a condition for purchasing 2014 playoff tickets. But some of those season-plan holders dropped off last offseason when the Orioles waited longer than usual to send out renewal statements and announced the price increase.
The club has been unable to make up those losses by attracting single-game purchases despite the fact the Orioles remain in the thick of a pennant race.
The players have noticed the empty seats. How could they not?
But they've been careful to praise the enthusiasm of those who do come rather than lament those who do not.
"Yeah, it's sad that we're not selling out. We're not getting the crowds that we used to in the past," Machado said. But "the people who are coming, they're coming every day, and it's awesome to see them come out and support us every day."