- - Thursday, September 1, 2016

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Baltimore Orioles minority owner Steve Geppi went on Facebook Monday afternoon to make an emotional — desperate — plea for Orioles fans to show up at Camden Yards for an important American League East division series against the Toronto Blue Jays.

“This is a message to all the proclaimed Oriole ‘fans’!” Geppi wrote. “Tonight we begin a crucial three-game series with the first place Toronto Blue Jays who lead us by three games. Many people claim to be loyal Oriole fans, but often do not support the team. If you are one of the people who claim to be a true Oriole fan, you will move mountains to be at this series, because if you don’t come, I don’t know what will ever make you come?

“These guys have grinded it out all year long, and were in first place most of the year until recently,” Geppi continued. “They are still very thick in the race and already are holding a wild-card position, but I’m sure you agree that we want them to win the division so that we can have home-field advantage during the playoffs. I’m asking you to prove that you’re a true fan and come out tonight tomorrow and Wednesday, or any of the games you can make to demonstrate that you are in full support of the team that has captured our hearts and is grinding it out so that we can watch October baseball. I will be there as always. Feel free to stop by for a couple minutes and say hi! Go O’s!”

The crowd at Camden Yards for Monday night’s division rival showdown in the stretch run for the postseason, a 5-1 loss to Toronto? The number of “true” Orioles fans who moved mountains to be at the opening game of the series? The official number was 15,532.

Geppi might have had time to say hi to all of them.

That’s a crowd that shows up for the second home game of the season in April.

Orioles announce 15,532,” tweeted Stan Charles, writer and publisher for PressBox magazine and web site in Baltimore and longtime observer of Baltimore sports. “Pathetic. Please give me a break on all the reasons.”

“It was very disappointing to see only 15,000 people at the ballpark last night, but maybe tonight it’ll be different,” Geppi wrote on his Facebook page the following day.

It was different that night — 16,083 Orioles fans moved mountains to get to Tuesday night’s game, a 5-3 Baltimore victory.

These are bad times at Camden Yards, once the crown jewel of Major League Baseball, the ballpark that changed economics of the game since it opened in 1992. The Orioles — despite being a fun team to watch with one of the best young players in baseball in Manny Machado and a team competing for the AL East title — are ranked 20th out of 30 teams in attendance, drawing 1.8 million fans through 67 home games, an average of 26,632 per game.

The week before — when the Washington Nationals came to Baltimore for two games of a four-game home-and-away series against the regional rival — 31,660 showed up on Monday and 26,697 on Tuesday.

When the series shifted to Washington — where Orioles owner Peter Angelos once proclaimed there are no “real baseball fans” — the numbers were dramatically different. Nearly 40,000 fans filled Nationals Park for both games.

When Camden Yards opened in 1992, nearly 3.6 million fans came through the turnstiles. The club drew more than 3 million annually for every full season — topping out at 3.7 million and a 45,816 average — until 2002, their fifth straight losing season, losing that would continue for another nine straight seasons, as attendance dropped to a low of 1.7 million in 2010 and 2011.

Then the losing stopped. Baltimore went 93-69 and went to the AL playoffs as a wild card team for the first time since 1997. And the winning has continued since — 85-77 in 2013, 96-66 and the AL East division title in 2014 and a drop to 81-81 last year.

But while attendance rose, it was still weak at 2.1 million. It grew to 2.3 million in 2013, and 2.4 million in 2014. Last year’s .500 season drew 2.3 million to Camden Yards, but this year’s crowds are down nearly 3,000 per game from last year.

So why?

High ticket prices? Residue of fear from the riots? Maryland schools starting this week? Marketing departments always face hurdles to overcome.

The problem, as always, is owner Peter Angelos, and, at the age of 87, his practice of signing off on the smallest of decisions within the organization.

“The Orioles marketing people are smart enough to know what the problem is and what the solutions are,” Charles said. “The problem they have is executing the design of something in a timely fashion, given that the owner is very slow to move.”

The irony is that Angelos, after 14 straight losing seasons, finally got the baseball operation going in the right direction under general manager Dan Duquette and manager Buck Showalter.

But the business side — selling the winning — has been a disaster.

For four straight years, the Orioles have been the last team in baseball to start selling season tickets. This off season, because of a scheduling conflict at the Baltimore Convention Center, the Orioles held their annual FanFest six week earlier than normal, in December. They weren’t ready to sell tickets at FanFest.

“I see a bunch of unsubstantiated comments, riots, prices, etc, etc.,” said Marty Conway, professor at sports management at Georgetown who is familiar with the Baltimore-Washington sports market. “At the end of the day, Peter Angelos hasn’t kept pace in the industry with contemporary marketing, or fan-engagement tactics, and it shows in April and August, for the most part. Yes, in August they have faced challenges before. For example, they used to host that Indy Car race for a couple of years on Labor Day weekend. Those preparations kept some people from coming downtown. But today, I don’t see any riot police, and I don’t see any race track barriers to get around. So, what gives? The weather? Schools? Can’t change any of that, but they also don’t seem to try and work around any of it.

“This applies to the team not putting tickets, including season tickets, on sale until after they had signed Chris Davis in January,” Conway said. “If the adage, ‘Championships are built in the off-season’ applies to players and off-season preparation, then it also applies to business practices in sports. You can’t forgo selling tickets for four months and think you can just make it up by winning.

“The amount of Orioles fans in Nationals Park was interesting,” Conway said. “Max Scherzer noticed. Why aren’t those fans at Oriole Park? Again, as an owner, you’d want to learn more about that.”

The notion that the presence of the Nationals has severely damaged the Orioles is false. Their attendance had dropped from 3.7 million to 2.6 million before the Expos moved to Washington in 2005. The bigger impact for the Orioles has been the presence of the Ravens. The baseball team’s attendance grew to record numbers during the absence of NFL football in Baltimore, and, when the Ravens arrived in 1996, the Orioles began their losing skid two years later while the Ravens were going to the Super Bowl after just four years in town.

Baltimore is a blue collar sports town, and fans at Ravens games have been a major financial commitment to spend their sports entertainment dollars. There is not enough to go around for commitments to both teams — particularly when one wins consistently and the other loses consistently.

The Orioles did not respond to several email requests for comments for this column. But then that is part of the problem.

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