After a year of empty stands, Orioles welcome crowds again, but fans aren’t flocking back

JON MEOLI
The Baltimore Sun (TNS)
Empty seats at Camden Yards have become a familiar site this season for Baltimore Orioles games.

When rookie slugger Ryan Mountcastle homered to give the Baltimore Orioles a seventh-inning lead in Friday night’s 3-1 win over the Cleveland Indians, it was greeted with a roar from the largest crowd he’s ever played in front of at Camden Yards.

Mountcastle could feel that there were more people at the park Friday than in games past, even if it wasn’t by much. And it made a difference.

“There was definitely a lot more people now that it’s full capacity,” said Mountcastle, whose Major League Baseball debut season in 2020 featured empty ballparks across the country due to COVID-19. “I could definitely feel the energy. It was a great atmosphere, and it’s fun to play in front of.”

Such a distinction going to an announced crowd of 12,009 in a ballpark that holds 45,971 is just the latest indication of how attendance at Orioles games has lagged in recent years, a trend made even more complicated by COVID-19 restrictions that have only recently been lifted and discontent with new ballpark policies, including a ban on outside food and drinks.

Among teams in similarly sized markets that have hosted games this month, the Orioles were one of only two that weren’t limiting capacity. Even so, they trailed all their peers in average crowd size.

Fans slow to return: Fans are indeed coming back after being kept out entirely in 2020, but slowly. Shaded beneath the suite-level overhang in seats that belied their knowledge of the best place to sit at the ballpark, Dean McNaney and Cindy Weller were at their second game of the summer last week, and first since a 25% capacity limit was lifted.

Their safety concerns about being at the ballpark amid a lingering pandemic aren’t enough to keep them away, though for others it’s a bridge too far.

Weller, 59, of Severn said she’s still concerned about the spacing at the ballpark.

“I don’t want people I don’t know sitting beside me for four hours,” she said. “I don’t care that we’re outside. I don’t care that we’re masked.”

McNaney, 54, of Millersville said the lack of crowds so far this year doesn’t bother him since he’s just at the park to watch baseball. Their game day experience has changed, though. In years past, they’d park at the ballpark early and go have lunch at a local restaurant, supporting businesses and surrounding establishments along the way. With parking lots closed until an hour before games, they no longer do that.

No outside food or beverages: He also lamented not being able to buy a few bottles of water from an outside vendor and bring it into the park the way he has in years past. He said he’d be able to get two or three bottles outside the park for the cost of one inside.

The club has suspended a popular program of allowing outside food and beverages into the ballpark in 2021. The Orioles have not answered multiple inquiries from The Baltimore Sun about that change since the season began.

Between the team’s on-field struggles and some of the costs associated with coming to the game, McNaney understands why crowds might be small this year.

“I feel sorry for a family of four,” he said. “It’s going to cost an arm and a leg.”

On-field struggles don't help: Still, attendance climbs when the team is winning, which the Orioles haven’t done much of lately.

Baltimore manager Brandon Hyde, right, has watched his team struggle this season. Those struggles have likely played a role in the team's attendance problems.

Since manager Brandon Hyde and executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias took over in 2019, the Orioles’ 48-96 record at Camden Yards entering Tuesday gives them a league-low .333 home winning percentage. Entering Tuesday, the Orioles had the second worst record in baseball at 21-38, ahead of only the 20-41 Arizona Diamondbacks, on the heels of 100-loss seasons in 2018 and 2019.

After the Orioles won the American League East for the first time since 1997 and reached the AL Championship Series in 2014, attendance has steadily declined each season along with the team’s winning percentage.

Before the team’s on-field decline began in 2018, punctuated by the midseason trades of stars Manny Machado, Jonathan Schoop, Zack Britton and others, the record-low attendance in a game open to fans at Camden Yards was 9,129 on April 12, 2010, against the Tampa Bay Rays. A home crowd of 7,915 on April 9, 2018, broke that dubious mark and was one of seven games with fewer than 10,000 fans that year. The Orioles had 13 such games in 2019 before the coronavirus pandemic closed ballparks in 2020.

Capacity limits: Upon the return of fans to stadiums this spring, the Orioles capped capacity at 25%, with approximately 11,000 tickets made available for each game, after consultation with city and state officials, MLB, the state health department and the Maryland Stadium Authority, which owns Camden Yards.

The club welcomed 186,241 fans for those 23 limited-capacity games, an average of 8,097. That includes a pair of popular dates in Opening Day — typically a sellout of north of 44,000 people — and Memorial Day, while 11 games came against the popular New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox.

Comparing the early-season attendance in 2019 and 2021 shows a difference of 250,065 fewer fans at such games this year. Much of that is owed to the capacity limits, but that reasoning dried up June 1, when the team opened the ballpark at full capacity.

A record-low 5,337 tickets were sold June 1 to see the team end its 14-game losing streak, tied for the second longest in club history behind the infamous 21-game streak to open the 1988 season. In the five games since capacity restrictions were lifted, the Orioles announced a total of 42,683 attendees — not even enough to fill the ballpark when combined — for an average of 8,547. The peak was Friday night’s announced crowd of 12,009.

Through 28 home games this season, the Orioles have had 228,924 fans — an average of 8,176 per game. In 2019, when the Orioles drew 1,307,807 in 81 home games, the fewest since Camden Yards opened in 1992, they averaged 16,146 — the third fewest in the majors ahead of only the Miami Marlins and Tampa Bay Rays.

Friday night’s crowd came on the sought-after floppy hat giveaway day, and typically, the Orioles draw better on such promotional nights. They’ve also instituted military and health care worker discounts for the 2021 season and upgraded their Birdland Membership plans to allow for more flexibility for exchanges, in addition to discounts on ticket prices, merchandise and concessions.

O's provide statement: In response to an interview request to the team and written questions about current attendance and plans to increase it, Orioles senior vice president for communications and community development Jennifer Grondahl provided a statement.

“The Orioles continue to provide value and entertainment to fans of all ages as one of the most affordable, family-friendly experiences in professional sports,” she said. “We remain committed to not only bringing more fans to Camden Yards, but generating tourism for downtown Baltimore in collaboration with state and local officials and our countless community partners. By working together to host sports, cultural, entertainment, and civic events, we can showcase our beautiful city and all that Maryland has to offer.”

Pandemic concerns linger: The lingering pandemic and how it has affected a person’s psyche — in this case, a willingness to attend a baseball game among thousands of fans — is unclear to any business, let alone the Orioles. Masks are still required in the ballpark, and mobile ticketing and cashless transactions are still in place, but distancing requirements are largely gone. Pod seating in the center field bleachers is still available.

On Monday, Maryland inched closer to fully vaccinating half of state residents against the coronavirus as state health officials reported another day of declining positivity rates and hospitalizations. It’s the team’s hope that as people get more comfortable with life after the pandemic and as vaccination rates rise, more fans might come to the ballpark.

“I hope they do,” Hyde said. “That’s a personal choice, but yeah, I’d love to see as many people as possible here at the ballpark. When there’s fans, it gives our players energy and it’s fun to play in front of a lot of fans. Hopefully, fans continue to come out this summer and we can fill it up and they enjoy coming out to the ballpark.”