SCHMUCK: With discontinuation of Orioles FanFest, a longtime Baltimore tradition ends

The Baltimore Sun (TNS)
Mike Elias

Now that it’s on the street that Orioles FanFest will no longer require you to send yourself a “Save the Date” card for Jan. 25, you’ll have to find some other way to entertain yourselves during the weekend between the NFL conference title games and the Super Bowl.

Maybe the Orioles have something else up their sleeve to get everyone excited about the second year of the Mike Elias rebuilding project, but they’ve been fairly tight-lipped about the reasons for ending a long-time team tradition and rather vague about alternative ways to reach out to fans.

The main reason is obvious enough. What was once a two-day affair that drew huge crowds has winnowed down to a Saturday event that drew an estimated 8,000 fans to the Baltimore Convention Center last January.

Putting on that show is an expensive proposition, especially since most of the tickets are comped to season-plan holders and the proceeds from the sale of autograph vouchers go to the team’s OriolesREACH charitable efforts. So, it probably makes economic sense to come up with a more cost-efficient approach to fan engagement.

How will it play with fans: The real question is how it will play with those fans — clearly the team’s most loyal customers — who viewed FanFest as a kind of baseball Groundhog Day that signaled the approach of spring training in mid-February and Opening Day six weeks or so after that.

That would be difficult to measure, but if it were all about the cost, you might think the Orioles would have taken into account the $90 million they chopped off their payroll last year and just kept FanFest as a loss leader.

No one has to remind ownership that regular-season attendance has dropped five seasons in a row and just suffered the largest total decline in back-to-back full seasons (720,617 from 2017 to 2019) in the 66 seasons the franchise has been in Baltimore.

No one has to remind fans that the Orioles have lost more games in those two full seasons than any other major league club — 11 more than the next-worst team.

Franchise overhaul: That’s why the O’s are in the process of a near-total overhaul and Elias has been ruthlessly single-minded in his determination to dramatically change the way the baseball operation does business. He probably didn’t make the FanFest decision, but it seems consistent with his desire to embrace the old saying that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.

It’s tough to argue that point after the Orioles suffered a team-record 115 losses in 2018 with a team that actually entered that season with playoff aspirations, prompting the front office shakeup and the full-blown rebuild.

Still, the franchise is in a rather delicate position as it enters a 2020 season that is expected to look a lot like 2019. Elias said during his end-of-season news briefing that he isn’t willing to sacrifice any significant payroll to chase meaningless victories while he’s still in the early stages of building his “elite talent pipeline," but the O’s cannot afford to shed much more attendance.

Sending the wrong message? FanFest used to be a vehicle that spurred advance ticket sales, but a high percentage of the fans who attended last year were already loyal season-plan holders. Though the Orioles will look for ways to keep them happy with more exclusive events and benefits, there are going to be fans that wonder whether the cancellation of the annual winter celebration might be sending another kind of message.

The 2019 team was not exactly bursting with star power, which is what prompts thousands of fans to line up outside the Convention Center early on a usually frigid morning in late January. The current roster includes some solid veteran players and a few overachievers who helped energize last year’s team, but there is the possibility that Elias continues to trade down to expand the talent base.

The Orioles could end up trading popular team Most Valuable Player Trey Mancini for younger talent and deal or non-tender exciting infielder Jonathan Villar to conserve more payroll, which wouldn’t leave many players that fans would want to line up to see, much less pay for their autographs.

If that’s the case, maybe we’re all better off looking for something else to do that weekend.

There’s always the Pro Bowl.