As other Major League Baseball teams pursue new ballparks, the Maryland Stadium Authority says it is eager to strike a lease deal keeping the Orioles in a reimagined Camden Yards for the long term.
“We want to create an environment that makes the team want to stay and play its games at Oriole Park at Camden Yards,” said Michael Frenz, the stadium authority’s executive director, in an interview as lease negotiations continue.
The Orioles’ original lease with the state began April 1, 1992, and was to expire at the end of 2021. The parties agreed last February to extend the agreement for two years through Dec. 31, 2023, with the club retaining the right to exercise a one-time, five-year extension by Feb. 1, 2023.
The team says it is confident of reaching a new agreement that preserves the nearly 30-year-old stadium’s charm but allows for upgrades that could include more social spaces, a sportsbook and loge seating. Loge seating, which can take various forms, is in an outdoor space at the field or club level in which small groups of fans sit together and share a common concession area nearby.
[ More: Ravens have begun stadium lease discussions with state of Maryland, eyeing future upgrades ]
The effort to formally renew the franchise’s commitment to Baltimore is significant because it comes during a period of uncertainty over the club’s future ownership.
Baltimore attorney and businessman Peter Angelos, 92, continues to hold a majority of the limited partnership that owns the Orioles, but he has been in ill health for years. Major League Baseball team owners voted privately in 2020 to approve his son, John Angelos, as “control person” for the club, meaning he succeeded his father as the executive responsible for the team.
John Angelos has said his family has long been devoted to Baltimore, and he and others have sought to assure fans that the franchise intends to stay.
“The good news is both the Orioles and the stadium authority feel very strongly that we want to renew this partnership and that it’s been beneficial for all parties — the state, the city, the team,” said Greg Bader, the team’s senior vice president of administration and experience.
But there is no guarantee the club wouldn’t be sold to an owner less committed to the city. The Baltimore Sun reported last year that at least three people have shown interest in assembling bidding groups if the family decided to sell.
As a result, the memory of the Colts’ middle-of-the-night departure from Baltimore and the possibility of a sale loom over the lease negotiations. After decades as Baltimore’s team, the club — in a dispute with the city over improvements to Memorial Stadium — left town for Indianapolis on a March night in 1984.
“It’s hard to fathom that the Angelos family would move the team, but what’s the likelihood of somebody — not the Angeloses — becoming the owner anytime soon? And that’s really the big crapshoot,” said Dennis Coates, a professor of economics at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
“On the other hand, Camden Yards is still, I think, one of the more beautiful ballparks,” Coates said. “The new ones, I don’t think, hold a candle to it.”
Under its lease, the club rent’s is based on percentages of various revenues. The amount the team pays the authority has dipped the past few years because it has received substantially less money from ticket sales, advertising and other sources during the COVID-19 pandemic and because of its losing record as it rebuilds. There is currently a player lockout as Major League Baseball and the players’ union continue to negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement.
[ COVID, low attendance have slashed Orioles’ rent payments to stadium authority, records show ]
The stadium authority received $1.6 million in rent from the team during the fiscal year ending June 30, according to records obtained in a Public Information Act request. That compares with the average of $6.8 million per year over the club’s 30-year lease.
But overall, the state says it has earned a $330 million return on its investment in Camden Yards and M&T Bank Stadium, the 23-year-old home of the Ravens, whose lease is up in 2027. That’s based, the stadium authority said, on $1 billion in team-related tax revenues since the stadiums began operating, minus $670 million in debt service on the bonds.
Now the Orioles are seeking a new investment from the state — both the team and the stadium authority say it would be premature to discuss specifics — so Camden Yards can cater to a new generation of fans accustomed to mingling and activity rather than just sitting and watching the game.
The additions could include a sports betting operation, either mobile, brick-and-mortar or both.
“The Orioles are quite interested in finding the right sports gaming partner,” Bader said. “All options are on the table in terms of what that relationship might look like.”
The team and the stadium authority also have spoken publicly about their hopes of capitalizing on the stadium’s popularity by using it increasingly for non-baseball activities such as music or other year-round activities.
“We’re now in a position where Camden Yards is still significantly lacking what a lot of newer or renovated ballparks have in terms of those social spaces, those areas for people to engage with baseball the way that people do today,” Bader said.
“We’re not looking to upend the traditional side of a baseball park,” he added. “We’re very confident that what makes Camden Yards so special would be able to be retained with whatever we do.”
Many newer stadiums are smaller and include open concourses with field views, and stadium clubs. Such clubs offer premium seating, often behind home plate, and exclusive access to stadium bars or restaurants.
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Major League Baseball has become increasingly aggressive in recent years about encouraging teams to seek the best possible stadium deals, even if that means relocating.
In May, the league said in a written statement that the Oakland Athletics should “begin to explore other markets” if the team couldn’t get a suitable new ballpark. Local elected officials are studying a stadium proposal on the Oakland waterfront.
The Tampa Bay Rays have explored the possibility of a new stadium but also of splitting games between their outdated Florida stadium and Montreal.
Rob Manfred, the baseball commissioner, has said the league won’t consider placing an expansion team in any city until the ballpark situations of the Rays and Athletics are resolved.
While Major League Baseball has publicly discussed stadium issues in Oakland and Tampa Bay, it has been silent on the Orioles.
The Athletics’ and Rays’ ballparks are typically rated near the bottom of the league’s 30 stadiums by pundits. Camden Yards usually ranks near the top.
“We have the bones of two great stadiums,” said Thomas Kelso, the stadium authority’s chairman. “But they need reinvestment. Delivering the experience that fans desire requires teams and the owners of stadiums to be creative and flexible.”