There is a lot of green this season at Oriole Park at Camden Yards – and it’s not just the pristine outfield grass.
Many of the seats at Oriole Park at Camden Yards have sat empty the last three months as the home team struggles through one of its worst seasons ever.
But while fewer orange-clad fans have been pouring through the Camden Yards magnetometers (security concerns having replaced ballparks turnstiles), the surrounding bars, restaurants and vendors do not seem worried about the attendance decline significantly affecting their business.
Yes, game-day sales are down, said Tom Leonard, owner and manager at Pickles Pub, just outside the stadium. But the business is holding on and, in some ways has become better, he said.
“It’s been a more challenging year because of the O’s, but we’re still going strong,” Leonard said.
Game of adjustments
That the Orioles found themselves in this position would have seemed unlikely just four years ago. The 2014 Orioles were the best team in recent memory. They finished with 96 wins, good for first in the American League East, and advanced to the American League Championship Series.
At the same time, nearly 2.5 million fans poured through the stadium gates good for an average of more than 30,000 fans a game, according to ESPN.
Five years later, the wins and the crowds have faded.
Coming into last weekend series with the Texas Rangers, the Orioles have the worst record in baseball and are on pace for one of the worst seasons in baseball history.
The fans seem to have noticed. As of Friday, the Orioles were averaging just over 20,700 in paid attendance per game, according to ESPN. That’s about 8,000 less than the league average.
So stadium-adjacent businesses have been forced to adjust.
Sharon Hutchinson sells sausages, hot dogs, burgers and sodas outside the stadium. Fans can take the sealed food and drink into the game or scarf it down on the sidewalk before they enter.
With fewer sales on game day, she adjusts what gets made before each game, cutting her overhead. She can also guess whether it will be good crowd or a lighter crowd.
“They’ve got a lot of people when they do a giveaway,” Hutchinson said. “We know when it’s going to be slow… you don’t have to cook a lot.”
She still sees the crowds at Pickles and its neighbor, Sliders, especially after the few games the Orioles win.
World Cup bump
At Pickles, Leonard said the attendance struggles have forced him to run a better business.
“We’re fine and we’ll be fine. We could sustain ourselves if Camden Yards wasn’t there,” he said. “This is just showing us how to run a better business and how to be more profitable.”
For years, Leonard has been measuring his sales against Orioles attendance. This year, his sales per attendance are up.
Part of that has been greater success at attracting convention business. It used to be that convention visitors wouldn’t find Pickles until the later days of their visit, only after they found out that the pub’s kitchen was open until 1 a.m.
“Now, we’re getting them from Day One,” Leonard said.
Other strategies have included more promotions and social media marketing. One offers $2 Coors Lights from the third through seventh innings of Orioles home games.
For the past month, the pub has filled its post-lunch rush with another sport. Fans, especially expats working at the nearby University of Maryland, Baltimore and University of Maryland Medical Center, have taken up bar stools at Pickles to watch the 2018 World Cup.
The Orioles remain an anchor of the development of downtown Baltimore, said Kirby Fowler, president of the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore.
“Camden Yards has been an asset to downtown over these past two decades,” he said. “There’s no question that the Orioles are a net asset to the city.”
If business owners are concerned that down attendance has affected their sales, Fowler has not heard it: he has not received one call or email from surrounding restaurants.
“We have not heard any concerns,” Fowler said. “Over the years, we hear concerns from restaurants for various reasons.”
The truth is, unless the home team wears pinstripes or a “B” on their cap, these things are cyclical. Just a decade ago, the Orioles were in the midst of 14-straight losing seasons and plummeting attendance. Yet downtown has continued to grow no matter how the Orioles fare.
Leonard, the Pickles Pub owner, expressed the even keel of someone who has been through this all before.
“This isn’t going to be our only bad season,” he said. “If this attendance goes on for a couple of years, then we’d really grow concerned.”