Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Baltimore Orioles fans – When not enough is too much

The Baltimore Orioles home schedule ended Sunday, with the Orioles losing 6-3 to the Minnesota Twins, a game played in the rain, a game that took 3 hours and 5-minutes to complete, a game that featured 13 pitchers – a terrible end to what has been an embarrassing season both on and off the field for the once proud MLB franchise. The Orioles ended up with a losing 40-41 home record. Attendance for the year, was the worst ever at Camden Yards and the Orioles worst since 1988.

Sunday's crowd was 23,005, putting the Orioles' total in 81 home dates at 2,153,139 for the season. The average attendance was 26,582, the fifth lowest in the American League. The total, down nearly a half-million fans from last season, represented the lowest in the 15-year history of Camden Yards and the lowest for the club since 1988.

Thursday, Orioles fans sent a strong message to the teams’ owner Peter Angelos. More then a thousand fans who bought tickets to the Orioles home game against the Detroit Tigers, left the late afternoon game in an orchestrated demonstration at 5:08 PM, missing the Orioles 4-3 late inning comeback win.

Nestor Aparicio, who owns WNST Radio in Baltimore, organized the fan boycott. The ‘timing’ the "5" in honor of Brooks Robinson and the "8" for Cal Ripken Jr. Nestor’s career highlights include a stint on Sporting News Radio. Nestor has always been a believer in Baltimore baseball. Several years ago Nestor pulled the nationally syndicated Jim Rome from his radio station after Rome delivered a tirade against Baltimore. As far as Nestor is concerned, if you insult the city of Baltimore you won’t be doing business with any of the all-sports radio station he owns.

"The situation is pretty dire unless somebody does something," Aparicio said. "Peter is myopic. He thinks they're going to get Barry Zito this off-season. He thinks if they get off to a 21-5 start next year, the ballpark will miraculously fill up and sponsors will start coming back.”

"They're gone and they're never coming back, and Peter is the only one that doesn't understand that. He thinks the ballpark is empty because they've lost for nine years. He doesn't understand how angry people are at him” says Aparicio

Angelos led a group of investors that purchased the team in 1993 for $173 million, a year after Camden Yards opened. Camden Yards changed the Orioles and Major League Baseball forever. Camden Yards was baseball’s first retro park, a stadium that featured a ‘back to the future’ look but with all of the modern amenities and revenue generating opportunities MLB franchises need to be successful.

The retro-style ballpark began a trend among other cities to construct more traditional, fan-friendly ballparks, including Jacobs Field in Cleveland, Coors Field in Denver, Ameriquest Field in Arlington, Texas, Safeco Field in Seattle, PETCO Park in San Diego, California, PNC Park in Pittsburgh, Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia, Busch Stadium III in St. Louis, AT&T Park in San Francisco, Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati and Comerica Park in Detroit.

Between 1992 (the year before Angelos bought the team) and 1999, eight consecutive seasons, the Orioles where the toughest ticket in baseball – averaging more then 44,000 fans per game, virtually selling out Camden Yards. Attendance at Camden Yards has been on a steady decline since the 2000 season. By the time the 2006 season ends Sunday, the Orioles will have finished fourth, seven times, fifth once and third one other time. If not for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, the Orioles would be the worst team in the American League East over the last nine years. Nine years of bad baseball – Orioles fans have had enough and they’re determined not to take it anymore.

Angelos for his part is offering anyone any apologies for the team he has put on the field in the last nine years.

"Whoever joins that protest has no comprehension of what it costs to run a baseball team," Angelos told the AP from his law office the day before the protest. "When you get down to facts, putting together a team that can compete in the AL East means having a payroll between $100 million and $110 million. That money comes from the consumer, and I have chosen to keep ticket prices to a minimum."

"Our payroll is $75 million, and our ticket prices average $22. Some of the teams we compete against charge an average of $45," Angelos added. "We're going to have to match the competition. How to do that is a decision I will make in the future."

The ‘some’ teams Angelos referred too – one team the Boston Red Sox who play their home games in Fenway Park, MLB’s smallest ballpark with a seating capacity just below 35,000. The sheer arrogance of Angelos, being well aware only the Red Sox charge an average ticket price of $45 shows how completely out of touch Angelos is with baseball fans in Baltimore.

While Angelos stayed away from Thursday night’s protest, key members of his front office staff did their best to understand why Orioles fans are so upset.

Mike Flanagan, the team's executive vice president of baseball operations, told MLB.com he welcomed the protest.

"I'd say this: I thought they showed a lot of passion and a lot of exuberance today. Frankly, it reminded me of the '70s and '80s, when I was playing," said Flanagan, a former southpaw pitcher who won 167 games in the big leagues. "They seemed to be into every pitch. In some respects, I wish it would continue for nine innings.”

"We're on the same page with them. I think we share that same passion and exuberance. We want to go into the off-season, and I think we're going to have some good news down the road on some issues."

"It's pretty hard to miss," said starting pitcher Kris Benson. "I think all the players liked it. We don't mind if they come to the field every single day and do that kind of cheering for the team. Everybody enjoyed it, from the time we stepped on the field to the time that they left. Everybody was pretty excited to have some pumped up fans."

"I'm really confused," said Jay Gibbons, summing up last Thursday's events. "If we come back here next year and we're in first place, are those fans not coming to the game? Or are they coming? Are they our fans or not? I just know I'm a fan of a lot of things. As a sports fan, I root on my team no matter what.”

"I'm at the game [and] I'm watching on TV whether they're in first place or last. I'm a Raider fan. Put it that way -- I've been there for a long time. I understand people being upset, but there's different ways of doing things. I'm confused who they're upset at -- is it us or is it the owner? I don't know."

"I don't think people can comment on who should own a club and who shouldn't own a club. What came through loud and clear to me is that they're passionate Orioles fans and they want to win," Flanagan told The Baltimore Sun. "We want to win [and] I want to win. I want to be here and have races in September that mean something and have that kind of cheering in the stands again. It's been too long.”

"That's part of the reason I wanted to take on this job -- to change and get the culture back to where it was. Winning was the norm and losing was unacceptable. Hopefully, we'll head in that direction this off-season."

Can Orioles fans look forward to a better team in the not too distant future? Not if you consider what Angelos told The New York Times Murray Chass last week.

“We’re doing the best we can with a $75 million payroll,” Angelos said. “It’s tough to deal with teams that have double the payroll or triple. We expect to be increasing that payroll to compete.”

How much of an increase?

“In order to be competitive in the American League East,” the owner said, “you have to spend $100 million at a minimum, unless you push the right buttons and have the insight that Billy Beane and Terry Ryan has.”

The Orioles won the A.L. East title in 1997 with a $64 million payroll, second in the major leagues to the Yankees’ $67 million. The Orioles’ payroll remained second to the Yankees the next two years, but then began plummeting — in successive seasons to 5th, 12th, 14th, 15th and 21st in 2004.

Is Peter Angelos a bad owner? Yes and no. What Peter Angelos is, is a businessman. The Orioles, the Toronto Blue Jays and the Tampa Bay Devil Rays play in the American League East. The challenge those three teams face – the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox.

The Yankees own 38 percent of the YES Network, the Red Sox 75 percent of The New England Sports Network. Multichannel News recently estimated the Yankees stake in the YES Network may be worth a billion dollars. The Red Sox majority ownership of NESN is likely worth at least a billion. The Yankees and the Red Sox want to win every year, but it’s essential both teams remain competitive every year to drive ratings for each teams’ respective sports cable network.

Angelos owns 90 percent of the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network. However, Angelos clearly doesn’t have the same understanding George Steinbrenner has regarding the YES Network and John Henry has relating to the NESN Network. All was has to do is consider the short history of the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network. (this from several media reports and press releases)

Mid-Atlantic Sports Network (MASN) is a joint network that broadcasts both Baltimore Orioles and Washington Nationals games in the Washington/Baltimore area. When the Montreal Expos were relocated to Washington, D.C. in 2004, the issue arose regarding television rights for the new franchise.

The Baltimore Orioles expressed concern about the new franchise, which club officials claimed would reduce attendance at Orioles games. Ever since the Senators left Washington for Texas, to become the Texas Rangers, the Orioles had always considered the DC Metropolitan area their territory.

Eventually, a compromise was worked out with Major League Baseball and the Baltimore Orioles. In this compromise, Washington Nationals games would be combined with Baltimore Orioles games on television in a new cable network called "MASN", or Mid-Atlantic Sports Network, with Orioles owner Peter Angelos having a 90 percent stake in MASN and MLB paying Angelos $75 million for 10 percent of the new regional sports network.

Over the next 30 years, the new owners of the Washington Nationals can increase their share of MASN up to 33 percent. Under the current arrangement, MASN paid the Nationals $20 million to broadcast their games in 2005. This is the only situation in MLB in which the owner of one team owns/controls the TV rights of another team.

It should not come as a surprise to anyone that Peter Angelos’ belief system is based on adversarial relationships. Angelos is a legendary litigator, who has earned hundreds of millions of dollars winning lawsuits against builders who used asbestos. Angelos also represented Maryland in a lawsuit against the tobacco industry, signing a contract that eventually would have brought him more than $1 billion. Angelos eventually settled for $150 million, to be paid over five years.

The image of George Steinbrenner has been tied to the Yankees image since 1973. Love him or loathe him, ‘The Boss’ has stood and delivered time and time again for the team he owns and Yankees fans. John Henry, Larry Lucchino, and Tom Werner delivered the Red Sox first World Series in 86 years two years ago. Henry, Lucchino and Werner where front and center during the Red Sox amazing 2004 World Series run, just as Steinbrenner hopes to be in the coming weeks for his Yankees. It seems Peter Angelos doesn’t really care if the Orioles are competitive.

For Sports Business News this is Howard Bloom. Sources cited in this Insider Report: The Baltimore Sun, MLB.com, the New York Times and About.com