The 2018 season for the Baltimore Orioles could not be going any worse at this point. The Orioles have one of the worst records in baseball, and attendance is floundering. As of the completion of the series against the Royals last week (May 10th), the O’s have had only six games with more than 20,000 fans in attendance. They’ve had 12 games that couldn’t hit that mark, including a couple with fewer than 10,000 in attendance.
But this isn’t about the attendance. The future for this Orioles team is bleak. Coming into this season, the Orioles were predicted to be middle of the pack, and potentially in a position to make a move to put themselves in the middle of a playoff hunt. This was important, because it is the last season the Orioles have superstar (and future Hall of Famer) Manny Machado under contract before he will likely 1 test the waters of free agency before ultimately ending up on the Yankees. On top of that, all-stars Adam Jones and Zach Britton are also free agency eligible. The core of the team that had made the playoffs three times in the past six seasons is running out of time.
Despite the success in 2016, leading the AL East into August, the team still had trouble drawing fans, with 11 of their final 28 home games having fewer than 25,000. Which brings us to the question of why so few fans were interested in the first place.
That brings us back to Chapter One. The first death knell of the Orioles franchise was the agreement by Peter Angelos to let the Montreal Expos to move to DC, while Angelos would get significant gains from television revenues through the creation of MASN. And while the television gains have been there, despite the Orioles having to fight tooth and nail to get them, that well is drying up fast. Partially because of (as the article mentions) the Nationals fighting for their fair share of the MASN pie, but also due to the trend of cordcutting where TV revenues cannot command the absurd premiums that they did in the early 2010s. With the drop off of television revenues that is already happening but will be increasing dramatically soon, there’s more importance on gate revenues. Which brings us to…
Chapter Two: The Baltimore Riots of 2015. After averaging over 33,000 in 2014, early 2015 brought turmoil to Baltimore. We’ll sidestep the issue, as important as it is2, to focus on the culmination of the Orioles having to play a game in front of a closed stadium on April 29th of 2015. Since then, Orioles attendance has dropped at about a level clip, losing about 2,000 fans per game over the next three seasons, even despite the 2016 playoff team. Throughout this period, the Nationals attendance has stayed about flat if not creeped upward slightly. It seems that overall baseball fandom is unwavering in the Baltimore-Washington corridor, but fewer fans are willing to go in to Baltimore to see a game compared to DC. While correlation doesn’t equal causation, it’s hard to say that the riots didn’t have an effect on the perceived value of going to an Orioles game in the flesh.
With that all said, having a gem of a ballpark like Oriole Park ought to be enough to keep fans coming in, but the current demographic divide seems to split the Nationals into the “White collar” team of the area while the Orioles stay behind as the blue collar team. With dwindling gate revenues and a television deal renegotiation in the near future that will work against the Orioles, it’s hard to imagine a world where Baltimore can support a team over the course of another decade while there’s one drawing big crowds 50 miles to the Southwest, even with the best baseball stadium in America to call home.
As a lifelong Orioles fan, I’ve never wanted to be more wrong in one of my analyses.