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Steve King has been an Orioles season-ticket holder since the Memorial Stadium days. But over the winter, he asked himself a question that likely floated through the minds of many of the team’s most invested fans.

“Do I really want to buy another season-ticket plan this year versus waiting a few years?” thought King, a 59-year-old from Glen Arm.

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He had no expectation that the rebuilding club would significantly improve on last year’s 115-loss campaign (spoiler: It didn’t). But he decided to renew thanks to the Birdland Rewards program the club introduced this season. And on Saturday, he and his family will take batting practice at Camden Yards.

“To be able to stand there on the same field the Orioles play on and swing the bat and maybe even make contact is just ... for me anyway, even a foul tip would be a lifelong dream,” said King, who has had a 29-game plan since the early 1990s.

The Orioles, owners of the second-worst record in baseball, rank 28th among Major League Baseball’s 30 teams in attendance. They finished their home schedule drawing just 1,307,807 fans for their lowest total in a non-strike-shortened season since 1978, making this the fifth straight year attendance dropped.

But the Birdland program has provided some perks for long-suffering fans without increasing the price of season-ticket plans. Besides discounts on food and merchandise, Birdland members also receive rewards points to use on experiences and tangible items.

They include meet-and-greets with Orioles legends such as Brooks Robinson and Eddie Murray, delivering the game ball to the mound before a game and getting a giveaway item for a game they didn’t attend.

“When we look at the way people in 2019 engage with sports and when they attend a baseball game, the way in which they want to interact, it’s so different than it was even five years ago, and way different than it was whenever season-ticket models were created,” said Greg Bader, Orioles vice president of communications and marketing. “People have been able to really personalize their experience, and that’s a huge part of today’s consumer, as well, is the personalization.

“One size does not fit all, and what is great for someone is not great for someone else. We want to create as much customization in these memberships as possible, and that’s what Birdland Rewards allows us to do.”

The Orioles retained their three-tier season-ticket model under the system, with fans able to get an “Orange Level” plan for 13 games, a “Black Level” plan for 29 games or a “Diamond Level” plan for all 81 home games.

Orange members receive 75 rewards points per ticket, Black members get 200 per ticket and Diamond members get 500 per ticket. Those points can be redeemed for experiences, which vary depending on the plan level. Bader said more than 50% of Birdland members have used at least some of their points.

Matt Akman, 34 of Federal Hill, also plans to use rewards points toward the on-field batting practice. Akman, a Diamond member, used some of the tickets and rewards for clients of his law firm, Akman & Associates. He and his family have had full-season tickets in the same seats since 1993, but the Birdland membership provided welcome changes.

“You'd have to think it's the most important thing they have going right now,” Akman said. “The new GM is building this team. That's his job. Everyone else's job has got to be to figure out a way to get people to still come to the games, right?

“So if this helps them to do that, I would think it’s as important of a thing as they have right now. Anything to get people into Camden Yards, and if this does that, then it seems like a pretty easy thing to do.”

Like King, Akman contemplated scaling back on his season tickets. But the Orioles’ initiative through Birdland memberships and their other efforts to maintain relationships with invested fans — fans were potentially uninterested in paying to watch a losing team at the beginning of a rebuild — helped convince them to renew their plans.

“It’s like they already anticipated that kind of feeling,” King said. “To me, that means a lot. Rather than we complain and then they do it, they already thought about it ahead of time.”

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Birdland Memberships is a continuation of the Orioles’ other fan-friendly policies. Those include allowing fans to bring their own food and beverages to the ballpark and Kids Cheer Free, which enables an adult who purchases a ticket to bring up to two children age 9 or younger to an Orioles home game for free.

The Orioles held movie nights for the second straight year, where fans could watch from the field. They made improvements to the Eutaw Street portion of Oriole Park. They held another Summer Music Series to promote musicians pursuing opportunities in the industry, especially with a focus on female artists through a partnership with Change The Conversation.

They further expanded their number of giveaway and theme nights. There was even a crab feast on the Camden Yards grass.

Such efforts are important for any team, but especially one as low in the standings as the Orioles, said Bob Dorfman, a sports marketing analyst and a creative director for Baker Street Advertising in San Francisco.

Most MLB teams offer rewards with season-ticket packages and club memberships, including ballpark tours, player autograph sessions, memorabilia auctions and access to exclusive lounges at their stadiums. A handful — such as the Detroit Tigers and Miami Marlins, who are also struggling with poor attendance — up the ante with experiences such as being the GM for a day at spring training, catching fly balls during batting practice, serving as an honorary bat boy and traveling with the team on road trips.

“You've got to come up with creative ways to get people to come,” Dorfman said. “Obviously, winning cures everything, and that's what really puts fans in seats, but when you're not winning, that's the real challenge, so you have to be as creative as possible.”

“The rewards programs and things like that, you’ll see increasingly become more important,” said Major League Baseball executive vice president of business Noah Garden. “As you look at the younger generation of fans, the way they purchase tickets in these customized ways and the way they consume their content, everything has really become customized to the individual, and I think that that’s sort of playing out in the way you’ll see us selling tickets in the future.

“You’ll see those customized experiences continue to grow.”

Birdland members hope that’s the case at Camden Yards, too.

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“I really do think that the longer it goes on, it’ll be a bonus aspect that people buying season tickets really count on,” Akman said. “It’s a cool thing, and I hope they continue to expand it.

“It’s nice that the Orioles are looking at season-ticket holders as people who should be appreciated.”

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