City Paper is not for tourists
This season, Jon Miller, the voice of the Baltimore Orioles, has warmed up for most games by uttering a phrase Bird fans thought they’d never hear again: “Plenty of good seats are available,” Miller says more often than not at the top of his play-by-play from Camden Yards, “so if you’re in the area, why not stop in?”
Coming off three years as the hottest ticket in two cities, sellouts are suddenly as rare as Oriole winning streaks. Early this season, there were better than 10,000 empty seats per game at Camden Yards. Even now—in the midst of a pennant race and hot on the heels of a blockbuster trade—Oriole crowds average 5,000 fannies below capacity many nights. After establishing a major league record for consecutive sellouts in their first year—never mind the opponent or how lousily the Birds were playing—the Orioles have become a bit of a tough sell in 1995.
Oriole Vice Chairman for Business and Finance Joe Foss offers numerous explanations for the drop-off, while going to some length to note that the Birds still have the second-best attendance in the major leagues. He admits the baseball strike may have left “lingering disinterest among some fans.” He also says there are 5,000 to 10,000 fewer fans singing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” on most nights because of the loss of group sales that stemmed from the late agreement to end the strike.
But the biggest barrier to filling the stadium this summer is psychological. The Orioles have created such a strong sellout mystique that people are convinced they can’t get tickets. One fan asked to see my schedule, noted a sampling of games she’d like to see, then concluded, “Oh, but they’re probably sold out.” A few other wanna-be fans concurred with what has become the conventional wisdom. When Camden Yards first opened, it took a couple of seasons to get accustomed to seeing the left-field upper deck teeming with fans; now it’s disconcerting to see those same seats substantially empty. Camden Yards is a stadium-size embodiment of Yogi Berra’s reputed comment about Toots Shor’s legendary New York restaurant: “It’s so crowded, nobody goes there anymore.”
A dozen years ago, a fan could walk up to the ticket window at Memorial Stadium a half-hour before the first pitch, grab a lower-deck reserved seat on the infield, and stretch out into the empty seats nearby. These were fans who came to the ballpark to see a specific matchup, inspired by the team’s latest winning streak or a gorgeous night. Fans from Washington would face the brutal hour-plus drive through rush-hour traffic, first on the highway, then through downtown Baltimore, secure in the knowledge they could get tickets. These days Washingtonians, who pay for 30 percent of the tickets at Camden Yards, are much less likely to head out on the spur of the moment.
The Orioles say they are doing all they can to let fans know there are plenty of seats available this summer. “If people have the perception you can’t get tickets, that perception is wrong,” Foss says. He notes that team broadcasters are pumping ticket availability, rather than crowing about another sellout crowd. The Orioles have even resorted to advertising, of all things, to move those last few thousand seats. Those efforts have boosted attendance from an early season average of 38,000 to 42,000 in the past two months, but it still leaves the Birds short of bodies in their 47,500-seat ballpark.
Like other successful baseball teams, the Orioles find themselves in a marketing dilemma. When demand outstrips supply, many fans find themselves shut out on the day of the game, or even weeks before. They get out of the habit of coming to the park, and even stop thinking about it, losing part of that daily connection to baseball that’s a big part of being a fan.
The seats they used to buy are filled by season-ticket swells, who make better customers from a ballclub’s short-term point of view, but are also the customers most likely to go away when something more trendy comes along. Walk-up buyers are more likely to be folks who come for the game, not just a day at the park, and are less likely to abandon baseball for some other, newly cool way of getting rid of disposable dollars. The number of no-shows—thousands of excellent seats go unused by the people who bought them—is an early warning sign. If folks are buying tickets they don’t use now, they could make the call not to buy the tickets at all the next time around.
Oriole flacks have played a large part in creating the sellout mystique-cum-myth. They bragged about the team’s strings of Camden Yards sellouts, including a major-league record 65 in a row from May 1992 to April 1993, and 40 straight sellouts last season. That publicity worked, firmly planting the notion that you had to buy tickets in advance, or forget it. But now, instead of serving as a prod to buy tickets early, the sellout mentality is leaving seats begging.
The Orioles and other major-league clubs promote a perception of scarcity because all ticket sales are not created equal. Ballclubs prefer to sell tickets as far in advance as they can because once a ticket is sold, the money is in the bank earning interest. Advance sales also remove the two biggest threats to attendance, bad weather and a bad record. Season tickets (a minor factor at Memorial Stadium, but a 27,500-seat gorilla at Camden Yards) are the best sales of all, yielding thousands of dollars per customer in the dead of winter. The Orioles have capped their season-ticket sales to leave room for single-game buyers, but with half the seats gone before the first pitch of the year is thrown, there is an increased urgency to buy tickets.
Since 1993, the Orioles have begun their ticket-selling season with so-called Moonlight Madness in December. Overall, the Orioles have been able to bank the money for as many as 3 million tickets (at an average of better than $12 each) before the season begins. That sold-seat cushion turns the screws tighter on fans to get their tickets early, but also feeds the sell out myth. Last year, flacks didn’t shoot down rumors that every seat had been sold by the middle of spring training. Even this year, rumors abounded that the Orioles had sold out every weekend date before the season opened. It wasn’t true.
Trendy retro-stadium design means there are fewer seats to go around to begin with. With the exception of The Ballpark at Arlington, the Camden Yards generation of ballparks all feature fewer seats than the stadiums they’ve replaced; none exceeds 50,000 in capacity. Architects say smaller stadiums increase intimacy, but in most cases those parks’ upper decks place patrons further from the field than they were in the old parks, because the new designs make room for luxury boxes sandwiched between the upper and lower levels. Those corporate suites provide the primary motivation to build the new parks and enable owners to make a profit with a smaller capacity. Clubs are actually willing to forgo the benefit of selling a few thousand extra seats for big games in exchange for creating a crisis atmosphere for tickets to every game. That view explains why the Orioles have worked so hard to build up the myth of perpetual sellouts.
Legendary owner Bill Veeck said that a team that only sold tickets to true baseball fans would be out of business by Mother’s Day. But he also criticized the Chicago Cubs for their trend-setting decision to sell bleacher seats in advance, rather than on the day of the game only, saying it was an act of hubris to deny fans the chance to buy a seat on the day of the game. If this season’s attendance scramble teaches the Orioles a bit of humility, fans and the team may profit in the long run. However, in an interview, two Oriole officials insisted they expect to sell out virtually every home game from mid-August on. For executives and fans, habits die hard, particularly bad ones.