Baseball

A diamond in the rough: As team rebuilds, Orioles have big plans for its main jewel, Camden Yards

Orioles' executives, facing the challenge of marketing a team that has lost 100-plus games in each of the last two years, are banking partly on its remaining superstar – its popular stadium – to draw in fans with "major headliner concerts" and other events in the near future.

The club says it is exploring updates to Oriole Park at Camden Yards, which is still consistently rated among the best in Major League Baseball in fan and media surveys but lacks design elements – such as open concourses – that newer stadiums have adopted since Camden Yards opened in 1992.

"There is a lot of planning and development work going on now for what Camden Yards is going to look like for not just next year but five or 10 years from now," said Greg Bader, the team's senior vice president of administration and experience. Among the possibilities "up for conversation" is whether the stadium still needs 46,000 seats, Bader said. Newer venues, such as the Atlanta Braves' Sun Trust Park, Nationals Park in Washington and Marlins Park in Miami, have fewer seats.

Last July, the Orioles broke with more than 25 years of team tradition by holding a concert at the stadium featuring singer Billy Joel. The longtime baseball-only venue joined other iconic ballparks such as Boston's Fenway Park, Chicago's Wrigley Field and Los Angeles' Dodger Stadium that have sought to capitalize on their cachet – and make money – in recent years by hosting concerts.

The club believes the sold-out concert can be a model for future marquee events.

"That is not going to be a unique event. That is literally going to be the start of something," said Jennifer Grondahl, senior vice president of community development and communications. "Oriole Park at Camden Yards is a venue, it's a destination for residents, for tourists. We want to use this ballpark not just for baseball but for other concerts, for community events."

Bader said fans could anticipate "major headliner concerts like that in the near future."

Bader, Grondahl and T.J. Brightman, the senior vice president and chief revenue officer, were named by the club in October to its new senior management team. Bader and Grondahl had previously been with the team in other posts, while Brightman was hired from his family business, an advertising and public relations company. The changes come a year after the team hired Mike Elias – formerly with the Houston Astros – as executive vice president and general manager.

The Orioles face a number of marketing challenges. The team finished 54-108 last season and attendance tumbled to 1.3 million – an average of 16,347 per home game, the lowest since Camden Yards opened. The Orioles also recently decided to drop FanFest in 2020.

"We want to win more games, we want to win a division title, we want to win a World Series. We want to win many," Brightman said. "But it is really about the impact the ballpark can have on so many, and having them be a part of it all."

Club officials acknowledge that Baltimore – in which homicides have topped 300 the past four years – faces an issue turning around the city's image.

"With the challenges that the city is facing right now, the city needs the Orioles and the Orioles need the city," Brightman said.

Bader said the club can play "a role in messaging and policy that help create an atmosphere where people feel safe. It is a very safe experience to come to an Orioles game."

Bader envisions the stadium being used increasingly for non-baseball activities such as music festivals or food festivals "and some smaller acts that maybe are going to be paired with games."

"Even when we won the most games of any American League team in a five-year stretch, we were promoting the experience," Bader said. "We had more well-known players then, and they weaved their way in. But it was still about Camden Yards."

The club has been increasingly emphasizing promotions such as the summer music series, Kids Cheer Free and various theme nights.

Major Camden Yards concerts are joint ventures of the team and the Maryland Stadium Authority, its landlord.

The stadium authority is entitled under the lease with the Orioles to collect a portion of proceeds from concerts at Camden Yards.

The stadium authority collected an 8% admissions tax from the Billy Joel concert, and the city 2 percent.

The Orioles collected all the net revenue – a concession made to the team by the stadium authority "to encourage them to continue to bring non-baseball events" to Camden Yards, according to the minutes of an authority meeting last June. The net revenue figure for the Billy Joel concert was unavailable, the authority said.

In future concerts, the stadium authority could choose to opt in and collect 45% of the revenue – under the lease terms – while the Orioles would collect 55% in consideration for their handling ticketing and committing various resources, according to the authority.

This is a transitional period for Camden Yards. The club's lease is due to expire at the end of 2021, though the Orioles have the option to extend it for five years.

Lease negotiations are typically a time when stadium updates are discussed.

"There's an open dialogue (with the stadium authority) in terms of us wanting to stay in Baltimore and be at this ballpark decades from now," Bader said. "It's certainly safe to say that those conversations are ongoing and there's mutual interest."

Asked about the talks, stadium authority executive director Michael Frenz said: "We currently have a great relationship with the Orioles, and with any new agreement are seeking a business relationship that results in a win-win for the club and the citizens of Maryland."

Newer stadiums look different than Camden Yards. Many are smaller and include open concourses with field views, and stadium clubs for VIPs that offer prime, low-level field views.

At Camden Yards, "there simply aren't the areas of the ballpark that allow for folks to gather and have a social experience," Bader said. "We've got the roof deck and we've got the flag court and Legends Park area that have greater potential."

Club officials and stadium authority officials said it was premature to discuss which design changes may move forward. But changes are expected.

"It's a ballpark that was built in a time when fans interacted with their stadium and the team dramatically differently than they do now," Bader said.

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