Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Debbie Minnick is the kitchen manager at Sliders, a popular bar across the street from Camden Yards in downtown Baltimore.

Peter Angelos is the multi-millionaire lawyer who owns the Orioles, the team that plays at the 12-year-old ballpark.

Not much in common there, except this: Neither believes that major league baseball returning to Washington will be of particular help to their lives.

“I don’t think it’s gonna be good for our business,” Minnick said yesterday as news circulated of the Montreal Expos moving to D.C. “We have people who come in from Maryland and Virginia and say they love Baltimore and won’t change. But I’m sure we’re gonna lose a lot of people.”

Angelos, of course, has been saying all along that another team so close to his own will hurt his team and the city. The argument has fueled Angelos’ long and often bitter fight against such a thing ever happening. But the fight is over. The Expos’ debut as Washington’s team is April4.

Major League Baseball reportedly has promised to compensate Angelos for any lost ticket and broadcasting revenues. Although the full effect 40 miles up the Baltimore-Washington Parkway remains unknown, many have some idea what it might be.

“I think Baltimore will suffer, no question about that,” said Aris Melissaratos, secretary of the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development. “From an economic point of view, this is not a good thing.”

Former Orioles slugger Boog Powell, now the owner of Boog’s Barbecue on Eutaw Street beyond the right field stands at Camden Yards, said he has no problems with a team playing in D.C., as long as it doesn’t hurt business. Which it just might.

“We do get a lot of folks from D.C.,” Powell said. “We just had one fellow that walked up. He comes to every single game, and he comes from D.C. … I am going to lose him. How many people like him am I going to lose?”

Studies, surveys and polls estimate that 13 to 25 percent of fans at Camden Yards come from the greater Washington area. Angelos, naturally, has stuck with the higher number. But an even dicier and ultimately more significant number is the fans the Orioles would lose in favor of the soon to be renamed Expos.

Few doubt that Orioles’ attendance will be affected, although after the Washington Senators bolted D.C. for Texas following the 1971 season, Orioles attendance declined the next three years. So did their record, but it was still a competitive, entertaining team that finished third, first and first in the American League East.

Marc Ganis, president of a Chicago sports consulting firm, promptly dismissed this fact, saying, “It’s an entirely different generation.”

Of the anticipated Orioles attendance dip, Ganis said, “The only debate is knowing how much, not whether. You can make educated guesses, but there are so many variables, from the performance of the team to how well the team is marketed.”

Ganis was asked to take a well-educated guess.

“Fifteen percent, for argument’s sake,” he said.

According to a poll commissioned by the Washington Baseball Club during two recent games at Camden Yards, 22 percent of those in attendance said they came from the D.C. area. Of that group, one-third said having a team in Washington would affect their decision to go to another game in Baltimore. That would represent a 7.3 percent decline.

Even without competition down the road, the Orioles’ attendance has dropped dramatically since they drew 3.7million in 1997, their last winning season. This year’s total will be around 2.8million, up from last season’s Camden Yards record-low of just less than 2.5million. Next year, who knows? The Orioles look like they’re improving. If they are, maybe more people will watch them play. Winning fixes a lot of problems. If fewer people come out, Angelos still gets his money back, at least according to the plan.

But others would not. From the kitchen to the conference desk, the Baltimore business community appears to be fully united on this.

“Even if Peter Angelos’ bottom line is not affected, the businesses that depend on Camden Yards will be affected,” said Anirban Basu, CEO of the Baltimore-based Sage Policy Group, which studies such matters.

“There is still some impact on this community, although I think you can argue that the impact is less than it would be without these arrangements [with Angelos],” Basu said. “The Orioles will likely field a more competitive team than they would have. This can only bolster attendance. But if attendance is lower, Baltimore is hurt. I’m not talking about a devastating impact. It’s not the end of Charm City as we know her. But it will be noted.”

Said Donald Fry, president of the Greater Baltimore Committee, an organization of prominent business leaders: “If attendance is down, that’s going to impact on our economy because there are a lot of spinoff activities, with restaurant and entertainment venues.”

John Moag, founder of a Baltimore-based investment bank for sports, media and entertainment franchises, called Camden Yards a “magnet” for other attractions.

“What it does is draw people into the Inner Harbor area for the whole day,” he said. “On game day, the aquarium is full, the Science Center is full, Little Italy. It is absolutely and totally attributable to the fact that people come downtown, and the game is the draw.”

Yet from Angelos’ standpoint, baseball’s compensation plan not only is significant, “It’s probably unprecedented in the industry,” Moag said.

Baseball “has bent over backwards to alleviate the potential [revenue] differences, which are real,” said Moag. “If you are the owner of the Orioles and you had a legitimate concern about the financial impact … putting in a guarantee that alleviates that impact is a very big deal.”

Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley also looked at the bright side. It was O’Malley who recently incurred Angelos’ wrath for suggesting that a team in Washington would only be fair.

“The mayor has remained confident throughout this process that Orioles fans would continue to come to Camden Yards regardless of a team in Washington, D.C.,” O’Malley spokesman Rich Abbruzzese said.

• Staff writer Jon Siegel contributed to this report.

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