Last week, Drew Forrester wrote an excellent blog about the current state of the Orioles, which focused in part on attendance at Camden Yards. There seems to be a common notion that consistent winning by the Orioles will return Camden Yards to its glory days, when the stadium averaged about 44,000 spectators per game from 1992-98. While winning will certainly bring many fans back to the ballpark, we – the Orioles, their fans, concession vendors, businesses that profit from visitors to Camden Yards, etc. – need to realize that those days are gone forever and nothing (including winning baseball) will bring them back.
When Camden Yards opened in 1992, the Orioles enjoyed a confluence of circumstances that will never be repeated. The team was a winner (from 1992-97, the Orioles had only one sub-.500 season), featuring one of the most marketable professional athletes ever in Cal Ripken, who just happened to be going after perhaps the most hallowed record in the history of pro sports. There was no major league baseball team in Washington, D.C. and no NFL team in Baltimore. And the ballpark itself was a tourist attraction; the first (and perhaps still the best) of baseball’s wave of retro stadium construction after decades of littering cityscapes with sterile, concrete monoliths.
These days, a winning record is the only one of those events that could ever be repeated, and even a .500+ season or – dare I dream – a pennant race won’t result in average attendance in the 40,000’s, or even the 30,000’s. It’s simply not realistic anymore, and here’s why:
When the Orioles played in Memorial Stadium, they were truly Baltimore’s team. As the only major league team between Philadelphia and Atlanta, the club certainly drew from surrounding states (especially on the weekends), but Memorial Stadium’s mid-town location was not inviting to out-of-towners. As we all remember, the stadium was nestled in an old-school neighborhood, with a bunch of one-lane roads and dozens of traffic lights to navigate when traveling to and from the games. Though we all have fond memories of our ritualistic routes to O’s games (some of us relied on the city’s bus lines, while others could make the journey on foot; I still remember my father’s Pontiac Catalina seemingly finding our “old reliable” parking spot on Venable Avenue by itself), attendance figures from those days prove that the Orioles’ most-cherished era was played in front of crowds that pale in comparison to those at Camden Yards in the 1990’s.
From 1969-91 – a 23-year period in which the Orioles had a winning record in 18 seasons and went to five World Series – the club averaged less than 20,000 fans per game. Even on June 22, 1979, the Friday night on which Doug DeCinces’ ninth-inning homerun ushered in Orioles Magic, the crowd of 35,456 only filled about two-thirds of Memorial Stadium’s capacity of 54,000 for baseball. And that was a helluva crowd for those days.
Don’t get me wrong. I am by no means suggesting that Baltimore was not a great baseball town. In fact, in over half of those seasons (13 of 23) our yearly attendance total surpassed the major league average. The point is that the attendance figures from “the good old days” at Memorial Stadium – when the team relied more heavily on Baltimore-based fans than it did after the move to Camden Yards – can’t come close to matching the standards set at Camden Yards in the 1990’s. (It’s no coincidence that the team didn’t surpass the 3 million mark for season attendance until it relocated to a venue easily accessible from I-95.)
So if you’re waiting to see regular crowds in the 30,000’s (the majority of which aren’t wearing Red Sox and Yankee caps) before declaring that baseball is “back” in Baltimore, you’re never going to be satisfied. The reality is that the Orioles’ average attendance the past two seasons (26,500 in ’06 and 27,000 last year) is as good as we (or the team) can hope for. The major league average for the past decade is about 29,500 per game, and the new team (and new stadium) in D.C. has officially relegated the Orioles to small market status. So anything within a few thousand of the major league average is not only understandable, but actually higher than the glory days at Memorial Stadium.
Of course, there are a few problems with the Orioles’ current attendance figures, namely the team’s insistence on only publicizing the number of tickets sold, rather than the turnstile count (which is perfectly within their rights), and the fact that the numbers are inflated by those pesky Yankee and Red Sox fans who infiltrate our stadium about 20 times a year (which I can tell you from first-hand experience was not the case at Memorial Stadium). What we need (and all we can hope for) is about 25,000 fans – vocal, knowledgeable fans, like those at Memorial Stadium – to “pack” Camden Yards on a weeknight when the Yanks or Sox aren’t in town. Because these days, that’s as good as it’s gonna get.