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August 7, 2006

The Ledger Domain

Mid-Atlantic Tango: Looking at the Orioles and Nationals Attendance

by Maury Brown

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I can't explain it, but there's something about the Mid-Atlantic that fascinates me. I've never stepped on her well-worn shores, or been influenced by her cities, but I've been hit with her siren song a coast away when it comes to baseball.

It's Brooks and Frank. It's Hondo and Short and the Griffiths. It's Camden Yards and the relocation of the Expos. In the case of one club, it's the admiration of fans that still cling to the greatness of its past, while the other tries to reconcile with a past that was, for the most part, horrid, while trying to forge a new identity. It's the Orioles and the Senators and now, the Nationals. The obsession has been daily for almost 6 years, and there seems to be no indication that it'll change.

Where there was one, there now is two - Attendance

Peter Angelos' words are still fresh in my mind, even though he said them two years ago. "If [the Expos move to Washington], this team [the Orioles] will never be competitive," Angelos said. "We're in the most difficult division to start with. You'll end up with a two-team division with the Yankees and Red Sox driving the payroll up through the stratosphere." He then said that a team in D.C. would cost him about $40 million a year; no small pittance.

Here we are just a little over a season and a half into the era of a DC team (yet again) and, lo and behold, attendance is down in both Baltimore and DC. There are a number of factors involved in the swoons, with the most obvious being that both teams aren't exactly ripping up the standings.

To try and get a feel for how the attendance for the two clubs functions, you have to see how the schedules make attendance rise and fall.

Let's start with the Orioles.

Orioles Chart

The above chart shows the Orioles attendance for 2005 and 2006 up to the 59th game of the season, roughly August 4th.

The purple and orange lines represent the average for '05 and '06. As mentioned, attendance is down for the Orioles this season compared to last, and it's a considerable drop. At this point last season, the Orioles were averaging 32,860. For the same period this season, the Orioles are averaging an anemic 26,224. This represents the largest drop in attendance from the year prior for the entire AL at 20.9%.

While Angelos might like to say that the Nationals are the sole reason for the drop, you have to look at the continued losing on the field, a familiar trend for the Orioles. As of last Friday, the Orioles were staring down the barrel of a 9th consecutive losing season, posting a 49-61 record. With that losing, the Yankees and the Red Sox haven't done what they've done in years past, which is do their job pulling up attendance across the rest of Baltimore's home schedule.

At this point in 2005 (see the spikes in the blue line of the chart), the Yankees had played 5 games in Baltimore (Fri-Sun April 15-17. Avg. 48,181 and Mon-Tues June 27-28. Avg. 46,633) while the Red Sox would have played 2 games (Weds.-Thurs. April 20-21. Avg. 38,449).

This season (spikes in green), the Orioles have had the Yankees and the Red Sox come in for a total of 10 games for this same period, with the Red Sox playing 6 games over two series (Fri.-Sun April 7-8. Avg. 38,742 and Mon.-Weds. May 15-17. Avg. 28,420) and the Yankees doing a series and the first game out of three game tilt by this writing, for a total of 4 games (Fri.-Sun. June 2-4. Avg. 47,966 and Fri. Aug. 4th, 44,840). The rest of the Orioles home schedule has pulled in an average of 25,023, which includes interleague play (Avg. 27,194).

How much do the Yankees and Red Sox account for the Orioles' attendance these days? Just shy of averaging 40,000 at 39,992. By the end of the weekend series with the Yankees concluded, the average for the two AL East titans will be safely north of 40,000. Angelos might curse the Yankees and Red Sox regarding competitive imbalance but, as with most clubs, he has to love them when they come to town. Instead of sitting at 21st in the League in attendance, they might well be close to the basement with Oakland or Pittsburgh.

Here is a breakdown by club for 2006 at Camden Yards as of 8/4/06:

Club            Avg
---------------------
NY Yankees     46,403
Chicago Sox    32,902
Oakland        23,295
Texas          27,989
Tampa Bay      20,324
Boston         33,581
Kansas City    29,855
Detroit        16,057
Toronto        15,727
Seattle        31,172
LA Angels      21,377

Interleague

Club            Avg
---------------------
Florida        18,183
Washington     37,434
Philadelphia   25,966
45 miles down the street from the Orioles are the Nationals, who have some unique attendance problems of their own.

In their inaugural season last year, the Nationals averaged 33,651 per game, which put them 11th in the League. A conservative projection by MLB and the Nationals before the season started was for 2.5 million in total attendance by the end of the season. Happily, they announced their attendance at season's end at 2,692,123.

This time last season, the Nationals were averaging a nice round figure of 34,000 a game. For the same period this season, the Nationals are averaging 27,278, a 20% drop from the year prior.

Nationals' management attributes the drop to a few factors:

  • Fan uncertainty over lease negotiations and the approval of $610 million in funding for a new stadium for the Nationals on the Anacostia river, which wasn't finalized until March. No matter how remote relocation would have been, DC politicians, and members of the media sowed the seeds of doubt before these aspects were decided upon.

  • Award of ownership. MLB did not award ownership to the Lerner group until May 3rd. From 2002 until that point, the Expos and Nationals had been collectively owned by MLB. It will be debated for some time as to whether there was a conflict of interest in collective ownership of a club and having that club conduct trades with those that owned it.

  • Playing, for the time being, in RFK Stadium, which is now nearly 45 years old. While a good interim facility, it's not the draw that a new state-of-the-art facility will be.

  • Lack of television broadcast visibility. As part of the relocation of the Expos to DC, MLB helped broker a deal with Orioles owner Peter Angelos to create a regional sports network called the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network. The Nationals were brought in as part of that network. MLB awarded the DC area to the Orioles for broadcast purposes in 1981. However, a dispute with Comcast had been in place until Friday of last week, blocking 1.6 million subscribers from MASN in the DC area. The dispute started in 2004 when MASN announced that Orioles games would begin broadcasting on MASN in 2007 after the team's current contract with Comcast SportsNet expired. Comcast stated that they had an exclusive negotiating window with the Orioles after 2007.

The Lerners, new Nationals President Stan Kasten, and the District all believe that these issues have contributed to the drop in attendance. As mentioned, the Comcast/MASN dispute was finally rectified this past Friday, with Comcast agreeing to air MASN as soon as Sept. 1st. Ownership feels that there is a direct correlation between the number of sets able to view the Nationals in the DC area to fan interest, which would translate to attendance increases.

To try and get the most out of aging RFK, new ownership made the investment of a Grand Re-Opening on the weekend of July 22-23 during the Cubs series rolling out 2000 feet of red carpet, giving out free Nats hats on one night while doing tee-shirts on the other. The concourses were steam cleaned, and the suites outfitted with new paint, plasma televisions and leather sofas. The week after, during the Giants series, the new owners went further by lowering ticket prices on 1,000 seats now priced from $5 to $11, and another 1,000 now priced from $3 to $7. The new pricing will remain in effect for the rest of the season.

Whether these changes will help sagging attendance before the new stadium opens (scheduled in April of 2008) will remain to be seen. Keep the above points in mind and look at the same trends we looked at for the Orioles:

Nationals Chart

As with the Orioles, I have broken down last season and this season up to this point by game and by average. Notice the large spike of the green line starting at game 31 for 2006. The spike is part of interleague play. What team represents the spike? You guessed it: the Yankees. Over the three game series with the Bronx Bombers, attendance averaged 44,997. The other two key series at the end of the chart represent the Cubs and the grand re-opening, along with the visit of the Giants and Barry Bonds. Take the Cubs, Giants and Yankees series out of the equation and attendance averaged 25,153 at RFK up until last Friday.

Here is a breakdown by club for 2006 at RFK as of 8/4/06:

Club            Avg
---------------------
NY Mets        31,993
Atlanta        23,083
Cincinnati     20,095
Florida        22,670
Pittsburgh     27,224
Houston        22,730
LA Dodgers     26,642
Philadelphia   28,023
Colorado       22,347
San Diego      24,740
Chicago Cubs   34,771
San Francisco  31,108
Avg            26,035

Interleague

Club            Avg
---------------------
NY Yankees     44,997
Tampa Bay      22,397
Baltimore      31,658
Avg            33,017
Conclusions

It's far too early to tell if the relocation of the Expos to DC has greatly impacted Orioles' attendance. It's also too early to tell if the honeymoon has ended with the Nationals far earlier than one would expect. The issues outlined with these two clubs, along with the limited data set, makes any concrete analysis regarding attendance trends pretty impossible at this time. What this study begins to show is that looking at just average attendance or for that matter total attendance for any given year for the clubs will paint a flat picture of the hows and whys of attendance may be up or down (to see the spreadsheet of how this analysis was conducted, point your browser to this link).

In closing, the idea of a rivalry between a DC and Baltimore club has yet to transpire. The Midway Series between the two clubs has garnered the averages of 37,434 when the Nats came to Camden Yards on a Fri-Sun series, June 23-25. When the Orioles came to RFK the results were less impressive. For that weekend series of May 19-21, the series posted a 31,658 average.

Thirty-four years ago the team that we now call the Orioles arrived in Baltimore, and it was the Senators that had to take stock as to whether there would be an encroachment of territory. To get around the objections of Senators owner Clark Griffith, the Orioles ownership worked with Griffith to create a large broadcast deal. To make the deal even better for Griffith, $300,000 in cash was transferred to the Senators and a sponsorship deal was added with a beer company that was owned by prospective Orioles co-owner Jerry Hoffberger. As Griffith saw it, competition was good, and all the better with the cash, sponsorship deal, and broadcast deals in place.

The Orioles went on to be in the World Series in '66, '69, '70, '71, '79, and '83, with Championships in '66, '70, and '83. The Senators never got the chance to get into a World Series while the Orioles went on their impressive run, and the Mid-Atlantic shifted towards the Orioles when the Senators relocated in 1961, and again when the second version of the Senators in the modern era relocated to Texas in 1972.

Time will tell if the Mid-Atlantic gets a rivalry out of this. But first, both teams have to get to winning.

Maury Brown is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Maury's other articles. You can contact Maury by clicking here

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