Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Ticket sales for the Baltimore Orioles have declined 17 percent from a year ago, a drop that the club officials attribute primarily to the arrival of the Washington Nationals in the District.

Orioles officials said yesterday that the club has sold 1.5 million tickets for this season, down from 1.8 million at a similar point in 2004. The Nationals have sold more than 1.85 million tickets without the aid of promotions and giveaway schedules.

Oriole Park at Camden Yards in Baltimore is sold-out for the Orioles’ season opener on April 4. Demand for tickets to the Nationals’ home opener on April 14 at RFK Stadium has been so intense that the club this week staged an online lottery to give fans the chance to purchase general admission tickets.

“Given what’s happened [in Washington], I think it’s still going to be very difficult to get to where we were last year,” said Matt Dryer, the Orioles’ senior director of advertising and promotions. “We are behind last year’s sales, but I do sense some buzz about our team. If we get out of the gate well, I think people are going to get excited.”

Orioles officials complained openly and bitterly for months about the arrival of the Nationals, arguing that the placement of another Major League Baseball team so close to their own would do economic damage to the franchise.

However, the Orioles yesterday downplayed their competition with the Nationals.

“I’m not looking to get into a thermometer contest with Washington,” Mr. Dryer said. “The box scores will take care of that.”

Part of the Orioles’ aim in not criticizing the Nationals is the delicate state of negotiations between Orioles owner Peter Angelos and Major League Baseball (MLB).

Mr. Angelos and MLB President Bob DuPuy met yesterday in New York for a second straight day of intense negotiations.

Mr. DuPuy and Mr. Angelos were unavailable for comment last night. But Mr. DuPuy said Monday that progress was being made in the talks, and industry sources yesterday said hopes of a deal being reached this week were rising.

Mr. Angelos is said to be receiving a package of benefits that included guarantees to his annual local revenue and future resale value for the franchise, as well as a dominant stake in a new regional sports TV network. Still at dispute, however, is the defined TV territories for both the Nationals and Orioles and who maintains asset rights to those territories.

The lack of an accord has significantly thwarted local marketing efforts for the Nationals and has stonewalled all plans to get the club on local TV.

Mr. Dryer and other Orioles executives say the team’s early schedule — the World Series champion Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees play in Baltimore in April — likely will give attendance a boost.

Less popular clubs such as the Cleveland Indians, Tampa Bay Devil Rays and Kansas City Royals have largely made up the Orioles’ early home schedule in recent years, leading to sparse crowds and minimal buzz among fans.

“We’re very excited about the early schedule. All three Yankee games will be over 40,000,” Mr. Dryer said.

Attendance for Orioles games at Camden Yards never has fallen below 2.45 million for a full season. The Nationals are expected to draw more than 2.5 million fans to RFK Stadium this season, and the teams should combine for more than 5 million — and perhaps even 6 million — in paid attendance.

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