It’s a good time to be a sports fan in Baltimore, but it’s an ever better time to be a sports vendor in Baltimore.
Ravens football is back, to the delight of a purple-clad city, and the Orioles are fresh off a nail-biting series with the New York Yankees as they approach the end of the season with a winning record — and a chance at the playoffs — for the first time in 14 years.
For many street vendors who say they’ve been waiting to capitalize on the “Orioles Magic” of decades past, the baseball franchise is finally delivering.
Whether they’re selling team apparel and merchandise or hot dogs and peanuts, many vendors said profits have recently been far greater than what they’ve come to expect from a typical game day.
Two people selling a variety of Baltimore sports merchandise at a Wild Bill’s Apparel stand on Monday were so busy taking orders, they barely had time to breathe. Recent sales have been “phenomenal,” one said as he accepted a wad of cash from a customer.
Business at the gift shop in the Babe Ruth Birthplace and Sports Legends Museum has also increased drastically, said Edward Meerholz, the director of retail and admissions operations.
“As the Orioles improve, our results improve,” Meerholz said.
Just two weeks into the month, sales of Ravens and Orioles gear in September are already 60 percent higher than last September, Meerholz said, adding that the Orioles’ success is “the main driving force,” behind the increase.
Meerholz said more people browse the shop before baseball games than football games — the weather is hotter and tailgating isn’t as popular. Because the Orioles are still enjoying a successful season, vendors have enjoyed a longer window of time to capitalize on those habits, he said.
Melissa Charney, a Bel Air resident who was among the early-bird tailgaters Monday afternoon before the Ravens’ opening game against the Cincinnati Bengals, said she’s been a loyal Orioles fan for years and is excited that attendance has picked up.
“We have all kinds of stuff for the Orioles and we always get tons of stuff for the Ravens,” she said as she strolled over to one of the clothing stands along West Lee Street “We have memorabilia from when we were younger and … I kind of like to have something to commemorate this year.
Charney said she’s bought more merchandise this season because she’s attended more games, and added that she’s noticed a large increase in the number of people in gift shops or sifting through vendors’ stands.
“It’s gone crazy with the Orioles,” she said. “It’s exciting to see people wearing [apparel] out, just around town … having Orange Wednesdays and things like that. But yeah, the stores seem to be doing really well.”
Meerholz said he’s also noticed a bandwagon effect causing an escalating demand for team merchandise.
“You find that everyone wants to wear orange,” said Meerholz. “It’s getting to be more the ‘in’ thing to do. … Everybody likes success, so you get caught up in it, and … people feel the need to be a part of that.”
Roger Shiflett, who has owned a concessions stand along the 500 block of West Lee Street for 20 years, said sales usually drop at this point in the season because school is back in session and baseball enthusiasm starts to wane, particularly after consistent loses in Birdland.
But business has remained steady this year, he said.
The team’s schedule is critical, Shiflett explained, because popular teams or big rivalries are always a big draw. Many people trekked down from New York to attend the Orioles’ four-game series with the Yankees, representing many potential customers for vendors, who said they’ll sell to anyone — even those wearing blue pinstripes.
And because the Yankees were in town, there were larger crowds — and more customers — than vendors are used to at the end of August. Thursday’s game drew 46,298 total fans, and Sunday’s turnout — the lowest of the series — was 40,346.
“You’d have to be crazy not to carry Yankees gear,” one vendor said.
Out-of-town fans are an important market, agreed Meerholz. Often, they’ll buy team clothing in opponents’ cities because it’s cheaper, he said.
Although New Yorkers were critical to Shiflett’s success, he said he can’t worry whether Tampa Bay Rays’ fans will make a good showing in Baltimore for their three-game series this week, starting Tuesday.
He’s more interested to see whether locals will be as excited about these games as they were about the Yankees set, he said.
“If we have a dramatic showing at the Tampa Bay series, I would think that the rest of the month should do really well. That’s a tell tale sign … especially that 12:30 game on Thursday … because usually you’re lucky if you can get 10,000 people to come in to those games. So we’ll see if we can get the people from downtown all of a sudden calling in sick to come to the game.”
The Orioles’ four-game series at the end of August against the Chicago White Sox — also playoff contenders — generated abysmal attendance figures. Average attendance during the series was about 11,800 people per day, and vendors were not happy about it.
Shiflett speculated that the “terrible” attendance at the White Sox games was “100 percent attributable to the Grand Prix” of Baltimore, which brought the IndyCar and American Le Mans street races to the Inner Harbor.
Disruptions from the race discouraged many fans from heading to the ballpark, Shiflett said, adding that the weekend saw “a big drop-off in sales.” Then his voice trailed off and he shook his head in nostalgia.
“But my sales have been down every year since Cal Ripken left, down and down progressively each year,” he said. “Am I noticing any increase this year from last year? Yes. But the Orioles fans, they don’t believe yet. They’re not saying, hey, we’re going to go to the games after 14, 15 years of losing seasons.”
Those past records are hard to forget for a few vendors who said the recent surge in attendance didn’t much make up for the dismal crowds they normally see. Damon Murray, who was stationed at a merchandise tent along Conway Street, said he doubted how long sales would stay high.
To maintain the high attendance numbers reached during the Yankees series, ballpark officials launched a promotion for the three games against the Tampa Bay Rays. Tickets for some left-field lower box seats will cost $8, and some right-field bleacher seats are $4 — a throwback to the pricing of 1992, the year Camden Yards opened.
Several vendors said they hope the promotion will encourage more fans to head down to the Yard, but Meerholz said the promotion’s success depends on who buys those discounted tickets.
He said tourists and families are more likely to patronize the gift shop or buy snacks and souvenirs from street vendors for young children. Young adults, on the other hand, are often too busy “prepping” for the game at local bars, he suggested.