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Orioles, stadium authority consider new Camden Yards lease, allowing more year-round use

JEFF BARKER
The Baltimore Sun (TNS)
Oriole Park at Camden Yards is shown in a March 26, 2020 file photo. The Baltimore Orioles and the Maryland Stadium Authority have agreed to seek a new lease deal for the stadium.

The Maryland Stadium Authority and the Orioles, in a transition period with their owner in declining health, have agreed to seek a new lease deal that would commit the club to Oriole Park at Camden Yards for years and could open the ballpark to more year-round uses, according to officials from both parties.

The team and the authority — the landlord of the Orioles and Ravens on behalf of the state — have a “mutual acknowledgment” that they want to negotiate a new lease before the current one expires, officials from both sides said. The current lease expires at the end of 2021, although the Orioles have the option to extend it for five years.

Period of uncertainty in Angelos family: The effort to renew the franchise’s commitment to Baltimore is significant because it comes during a period of uncertainty over the club’s future ownership and when play might resume after being suspended for the coronavirus pandemic.

Peter Angelos, 90, continues to hold a majority of the limited partnership that owns the Orioles, but he has fallen into ill health. His sons, John and Louis, have become increasingly active operating the team.

While the sons could one day own the Orioles, uncertainties about the club’s future stewards had created buzz that the team could leave Baltimore, a small-market city relative to others in Major League Baseball.

John Angelos, a team executive and lawyer, seemed to want to assure Baltimoreans last September, telling a group of local business leaders that the club would stay in the city “as long as Fort McHenry is standing watch over the Inner Harbor.”

The negotiations: The lease talks, while just beginning, appear to offer further reassurance. While negotiations began in early spring, there was informal dialogue before that, and the club has spoken publicly about its hopes of capitalizing on the stadium’s popularity by using it increasingly for non-baseball activities such as music or other year-round activities.

The elder Angelos doubted whether concerts made economic sense at the ballpark and worried about their impact, telling The Sun in 2000 that he was “not going to have it become some kind of honky tonk for various and sundry rock 'n' roll bands.” But his sons are more open to the idea and last July, Camden Yards hosted a successful Billy Joel concert.

Looking to create energy: Through such events — or even by opening a new bar or restaurant connected to the stadium — the goal would be to create some of the energy found on game days along Eutaw Street, the plaza between the stadium and the warehouse, where fans mingle and the smell of barbecue and hot dogs permeates the air.

Those sorts of initiatives — along with stadium upgrades — typically are discussed during lease negotiations.

Opened in 1992, Camden Yards is still consistently rated among the best stadiums in Major League Baseball in fan and media surveys. But many newer stadiums are smaller and include open concourses with field views, and stadium clubs for VIPs that offer prime low-level views. Newer venues, such as the Atlanta Braves’ Truist Park, Nationals Park in Washington and Marlins Park in Miami, have fewer seats than the 46,000 at Camden Yards.

Catering to a new generation: Orioles executives have said they want Camden Yards to cater to a new generation of fans accustomed to mingling and activity rather than just sitting.

Officials from the team and stadium authority spoke recently on condition of anonymity because the lease talks are just getting started. Neither entity would comment publicly on the negotiations.

Greg Bader, the team’s senior vice president of administration and experience, said last year that Camden Yards lacks enough areas allowing fans “to gather and have a social experience. We’ve got the roof deck and we’ve got the flag court and Legends Park area that have greater potential.”

The lease: Under the lease, the Orioles pay the stadium authority varying percentages of ticket sales, stadium advertising revenues, parking revenues, concessions sales, and suite and club-level revenues. The lease makes the authority responsible for maintenance and repairs, while the team provides ushers, ticket-takers and other game-day staff.

Until last year, the stadium authority was paying about $15 million a year in debt service — principal plus interest — on the 30-year bonds issued to pay for Camden Yards. The bonds were paid off at the end of 2019 at a total cost of about $450 million, according to David Raith, the stadium authority’s chief financial officer.

The stadium authority will continue to receive $15 million a year in state lottery proceeds for various other stadium projects, including improvements to the Camden Yards warehouse, and to pay off $32 million left on the original bond deal for M&T Bank Stadium, home of the NFL’s Ravens. M&T Bank Stadium, which opened in 1998, cost about $310 million, including debt interest.

In other states, some municipalities have struggled to pay off stadium debt because the payments rely on tourism taxes that have shrunk due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Raith said Maryland is fortunate to have its stadium payments tied to the lottery, which isn’t reducing its contributions to the authority even though its revenues have slipped during the pandemic.

Baseball's return uncertain: It is uncertain when baseball may return to Camden Yards. The stadium authority referred such questions to Gov. Larry Hogan.

Major League Baseball and its players association have been discussing options for playing, and Hogan “has had preliminary conversations with the Orioles and Commissioner [Rob] Manfred about the league’s plans for the season,” said Mike Ricci, the governor’s spokesman.

Hogan “has also had discussions with his fellow governors about the safe return of professional sports,” Ricci said. “We are monitoring the back and forth closely, and hope to be in a position to play ball at Camden Yards before long.”