- The Washington Times - Friday, May 4, 2001

Camden Yards appears as gleaming as ever in its 10th year, but its ability to draw fans is fading.

The Baltimore Orioles' average attendance of 32,524 entering last night's game against the New York Yankees was 20 percent less than last year's at this point, adding momentum to a slide that began in 1998. After a nine-year run as the one of the top four draws in baseball (second from 1995 to 1999), the Orioles have sagged to ninth overall and fifth in the American League.

The Orioles' dropoff is the majors' second worst behind only the Detroit Tigers' 28 percent fall at Comerica Park from a year ago. If Baltimore remains at its current pace, it would draw 2.63 million for the season, by far the worst number in Camden Yards history.

It's still early in the season, but the Orioles' skid at the turnstiles already represents more than $3.7 million in lost revenue, based on the team's average ticket price of $19.78 and a fan's typical spending of $15.40 per game on concessions and parking.

Predictably, the Orioles owe their slower ticket sales mostly to three losing seasons and their 14-16 mark before last night. The Orioles also have suffered with a distinct lack of star power beyond aging leader Cal Ripken, inconsistent weather and a home series over the Easter/Passover weekend.

"We think this is a temporary situation," majority owner Peter Angelos said. "I have no doubt we will ultimately draw 3 million-plus again this season. There's nothing here that suggests a crisis or an emergency."

The Orioles indeed will enjoy a large boost from this weekend's four-game series against the Yankees. Baltimore drew 40,218 last night for the opener, and crowds in excess of 46,000 are expected for each of the final three games. Sunday's finale features former Orioles ace Mike Mussina making his first appearance at Camden Yards as a Yankee.

But even after this weekend, the Orioles will remain 15 percent behind last year's attendance pace early May games in 2000 against the Anaheim Angels and Boston Red Sox also drew well.

And to meet Angelos' projection of 3 million, the Orioles would need to average more than 37,300 over their final 64 home games.

Angelos also partly blamed the attendance dropoff on the new unbalanced schedule. Used in the American League until 1971 and then resurrected this season, the schedule requires teams to play division rivals at least twice as often as anyone else. The shift has sent the mediocre Tampa Bay Devil Rays to Camden Yards seven times already this season.

"It's not that fans don't want to see Tampa Bay. They don't want to see them so often," Angelos said.

The unbalanced schedule, however, will also bring the Yankees to Baltimore for 10 games, four more than under the previous setup. But Angelos, who contributed to the new schedule's unanimous approval by the owners, said the extra games against historic rivals New York and Boston won't make a significant difference in total attendance.

"Maybe what we were supposed to fix was actually more appealing to fans," Angelos said. "Maybe we've made an error."

Meanwhile, club officials are hoping this weekend's heavy draw will introduce the rebuilding Orioles to new fans and spur ticket sales over the summer.

"I can't remember the last time the Yankees came to town so early in the season," said Matt Dryer, the Orioles' director of sales. (The Yankees last made a May visit to Baltimore in 1996.) "The weather is supposed to be very good, there's a lot of excitement about Mussina returning. This is a good opportunity for people to learn more about our new players."

Numerous other teams are struggling at the gate as well. Counting Baltimore, 16 clubs are down from 2000, 12 by double-digit percentages.

Hurting most of all, as usual, is Montreal. The Expos drew fewer than 4,400 to Olympic Stadium on Tuesday and Wednesday. Factoring out a draw of more than 45,000 on Opening Day, Montreal is averaging fewer than 9,000 per game.

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