With three playoff berths and the most wins in the American League, the Baltimore Orioles have been one of the most successful teams in baseball over the last five years.
But their attendance has moved in the opposite direction and has declined since the team was swept in the 2014 American League Championship Series by the Kansas City Royals. That season, the Orioles averaged 30,426 fans for each of the team’s 81 games at Oriole Park at Camden Yards, their most since 2005, according to Baseball-Reference.com,
Last year, the team’s average attendance fell to 26,819, a 4.7 percent drop and down more than 108,000 overall from 2015.
Orioles officials note the last five seasons saw attendance above two million annually, a trend they expect to continue this year.
“The Orioles remain a primary source of economic impact to Baltimore and the surrounding region,” a team spokesperson said in a statement. “We…will continue our efforts to keep Oriole Park at Camden Yards the number one sports entertainment option in the area.”
But the attendance drop could be affecting local businesses, especially restaurants, bars and hotels that rely on stadium traffic during the summer to keep up their sales.
Camden Pub, located just a couple blocks from the stadium on Pratt Street, closed last month. Owner Pat Liberto partially blamed declining attendance at the ballpark for slow sales.
The bar’s best year of business came in 2014, he said, coinciding with the Orioles’ biggest on-field success since the ‘90s. But by the end of last year, he said revenue was down more than $250,000.
The easiest answer for the Orioles’ attendance drop might be the simplest. Before the 2016 season, the Orioles raised ticket prices by an average of 20 percent.
They also lost a Tuesday night promotion offering $10 upper reserve tickets, sponsored by Ollie’s Bargain Outlet. The team still offers Student Night on Fridays, allowing fans with a valid student ID to purchase $7 upper reserve tickets.
While attendance dropped, TV ratings soared. According to Forbes, the Orioles’ MASN viewership last year increased 36 percent over 2015, good for the fourth-best ratings in the league.
Other factors, including the Orioles’ on-field performance, the performance of their rivals, the success of the Washington Nationals, weather and the Orioles’ roster moves can have an effect on attendance, said Thomas Rhoads, a Towson University economics professor specializing in sports.
“There’s nothing definitive,” he said. “We’ll never know without a comprehensive study.”
Liberto has another theory for why attendance has been declining: the 2015 riots in the wake of Freddy Gray’s death.
In the immediate aftermath of the unrest, with the curfew and the game the Orioles played in front of an empty stadium, Liberto estimated he lost $30,000.
He also said the unrest has had a lingering effect on the neighborhood.
“People just don’t feel comfortable coming downtown,” he said. “You don’t hear it from the politicians. …It’s not attractive to risk coming down and becoming a victim.”
Rhoads agreed the unrest could be one of several factors affecting Orioles’ attendance, Rhoads said. School trips and out-of-town tourists could have decided to see a different city. But if the unrest is a reason for attendance decline, the city needs to advertise its safety better, Rhoads said.
“From a business development and public relations standpoint, that’s when they have to say, ‘Hey, it’s safe down here,’” he said.
Visit Baltimore, the city’s tourism marketing arm, referred questions about the city’s safety to the Baltimore Department. But President and CEO Al Hutchinson said Orioles games can be a tourism generator for the city.
“Oriole Park is central to Baltimore’s brand as an iconic leisure symbol of our destination,” he said in a statement. “While Visit Baltimore does not track Orioles’ attendance numbers, we do know that Orioles’ home games are strong for hotel occupancy not to mention dining and shopping activity.”
From a travel standpoint, Rhoads said the best situation for the Orioles and surrounding businesses would be for the Orioles to be a first place team while top rivals the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox battle for second place just behind them.
Oriole Park has remained one of the less expensive parks in the country, drawing fans from the Boston and New York that might have been priced out of their home markets.
“The Orioles continue to keep fan-friendly practices in place,” the team spokesperson said, “such as allowing fans to bring food and non-alcoholic drinks into the ballpark, as well as keeping Orioles baseball the seventh-most affordable sports experience out of the 122 major professional sports teams.”
It would also be optimal for the Washington Nationals, whose 2005 arrival coincided with a significant drop in attendance for the Orioles in 2006, to be “crummy,” Rhoads said.
When the Nationals moved from Montreal, they split the Maryland market and created a competition between the two clubs for fans.
Though the Nationals attracted more fans than the Orioles in 2016, they also saw an attendance drop compared to 2015, according to Baseball-Reference.com.