Close your eyes. Listen. Can you hear it?
LET’S GO RED SOX! LET’S GO RED SOX! LET’S GO RED SOX!
Where are you? Fenway Park.
Wrong. You’re in Baltimore, Maryland, watching the playoff-contending Orioles face the Red Sox.
MVP! MVP! MVP!
For a team that prides itself on having the best fans in baseball (a truly overused phrase if ever there was one), the Orioles have struggled mightily when it comes to getting fans through the gates to watch their first-place team all season long. Of the 30 teams in Major League Baseball, the Orioles rank a dismal 20th in attendance with 26,800 fans per game. Both games of their brief two-game set against the Red Sox drew less than that average. Five teams with a record at-or-below .500 have outdrawn the Orioles so far this season.
What’s most disappointing about the attendance woes is the fact that as the Orioles were returning from a 10-game West Coast road trip. Fans should have been champing at the bit to pack the yard to support a first-place team against one of its bitter rivals. Instead, Machado had to beg fans to turn out and keep the home park from turning into a haven for transplanted Massholes (there were reportedly a few sightings of fans sporting Gronk jerseys at a baseball game).
“I mean, (attendance) has been a little down lately. Hopefully, with the pennant race coming up, and us in first place and getting closer to the playoffs I think that a little more fans should come and support us and come help us out,” Machado said. “Because we have the greatest fans in the world whenever they come out here, and we’ve got a sold-out crowd, we feed off that and that takes us to another level. So our fans are our biggest momentum and everything. Hopefully, we can get more out here. I know school has started now, so it’s going to be tough, but we’re just looking forward being back home and playing in front of them.”
While Machado was remarkably composed when imploring fans to just show up, it may not have been the worst thing in the world for him to speak out a bit more aggressively. Baltimore’s fans can no longer be considered the best fans in the world. They’ve lost that reputation this year, and won’t deserve it again for quite some time. If that hurts your feelings as an Orioles fan, I’m sorry. Do better (and as someone who is attending his sixth game of the season this weekend despite living 90 miles away, I feel comfortable calling out most of the state of Maryland). Many strident Orioles fans look down their noses at fans in Kansas City and Toronto who seem to have materialized out of thin air when their teams sniffed contention. That’s great, and yes, they are bandwagon fans. At least they’re going to the games.
The Orioles were used to dealing with Boston and New York fans invading Camden Yards in the early years of the 2000’s. It really was a struggle sitting through throaty bellows for MMMMMMAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHKKK Bellhorn. The team was downright unwatchable at times, and no one could be blamed for holding onto their hard-earned dollars and watching at home (if at all). Now, in 2016, the Orioles are the American League’s winningest team over the past five seasons. There should be no more opposing fans to attempt to drown out in the middle of a pennant race.
So, what’s the problem in Baltimore? Why aren’t fans going to the games, and can anything even be done about it?
As evidenced by the local ratings, there is a great deal of interest in the Orioles in Baltimore. Live games are the highest-rated primetime programming in the region. The Orioles did increase ticket prices ever so slightly this offseason, but ownership also opened the checkbook and pushed payroll to record-shattering levels. That’s what you’ve wanted for years, you got it, and you’re unwilling to pony up a few extra bucks to support the team? Seems unlikely. An increase in ticket prices by $5 is not enough to keep people away from the stadium.
During a typical Orioles’ game this season, the lower bowl is mostly filled, with only a few areas left unclaimed. It’s in the upper deck where the attendance struggles are the most evident. Selling lower-level seats isn’t hard. Those are the seats claimed first by season-ticket holders and companies. When the upper deck is empty, it’s a clear sign that fans aren’t going out of their way to buy tickets to individual games.
Something bigger than the Orioles is likely contributing to empty seats. The City of Baltimore, itself, is not doing well. Large swaths of the city are impoverished and crumbling, and it may be a tough sell for fans from the wealthier suburbs to make a trip into the city for a game. Even the famed Inner Harbor seems less crowded on weekends since the riots last year. Baltimore, itself, is just in a different economic bracket than Boston and Toronto (tech and finance hubs that they are), and that, along with factors outside the control of the Orioles may very well be playing a big part in the attendance woes.
Pinning weak attendance on economic woes is also difficult when you consider the fact that the Detroit Tigers, whose city is in much more dire straits than Baltimore, are drawing nearly 5,000 more fans per game this season. The Tigers have not been in first place for over 100 days, and are fighting for their playoff lives.
Nothing much can be done to steal Camden Yards back from the Red Sox and their fans. The team has done everything in its power and more to build a contender, and if the seats don’t get filled, the payroll may have to recede to pre-2012 levels. The fans who have groused for years about the stinginess and cost-cutting ways of the Angelos family don’t have much to hang their hats on these days. Camden Yards is beautiful as ever, and it should be filled every night for the final 22 home games of the season. Unfortunately, it probably won’t be, and that’s a massive shame.