Orioles look to profit as enthusiasm carries over from surprising 2012

Baltimore baseball fans flocked back to Camden Yards and merrily decorated themselves in orange and black as the Orioles authored baseball's most surprising story of 2012.

Now, signs abound that the enthusiasm from last fall — when the team broke a 15-year streak of losing records and postseason whiffs — has carried forward to a new season, which starts Tuesday in Tampa Bay. The Orioles' home opener Friday is the second-most-expensive opening-week ticket in the sport. The team's merchandise accounts for three times as much of the Major League Baseball retail market as it did last year. And baseball analysts are discussing the club as a viable contender in the American League East.

The Orioles stand to profit, as do memorabilia merchants and the bars and restaurants near Camden Yards. One new bar, the Deck at Camden Yards, plans to open this week to capitalize on the renewed excitement.

Tickets for Friday's game are selling for an average of $237.04 on the secondary market — a price that is up from $192.61 last year and is the second-highest in baseball behind the world champion San Francisco Giants, according to New-York-based ticket research firm TiqIQ.

Meanwhile, Orioles merchandise sales account for about 3 percent of baseball's U.S. retail market this year, compared to 0.89 percent for the corresponding period in 2012, according to SportsOneSource, a Charlotte, N.C.-based company that analyzes the sporting-goods industry.

Forbes recently estimated the team's value at $618 million, up from $460 million last year, with annual revenues up 15 percent, to $206 million. The Orioles experienced the largest attendance spike in baseball last season and sold out Camden Yards for two playoff games in October. Team officials won't reveal details of season-ticket sales but say that renewal rates and increases in new buyers are among the highest in the last decade.

"We are psyched," said the Rev. Martha Macgill, the rector of Memorial Episcopal Church in Bolton Hill and a new season-ticket holder with her husband. They spent $800 on a 13-game package. "We became obsessed fans last year."

Chris Matcovich, vice president of data for TiqIQ, said that in addition to the steep prices for home opener tickets, average prices for all Orioles games on the secondary market are up about 13 percent from 2012. "It definitely shows that fan sentiment is up this year off their first playoff appearance in a while."

The owners of bars and restaurants around Camden Yards say they're expecting strong business in 2013 after last year's surprise playoff run filled their cash registers in August and September.

"The lightning is in the bottle, and we're holding onto it," said Pat Liberto, owner of the Camden Pub on Pratt Street. "You can't even get a ticket for Opening Day because they're so in demand. I haven't seen it this way since the '90s."

Liberto said increased business on Orioles game days bumped his revenues about $10,000 a month last summer and fall, the time when enthusiasm generally waned during the club's long run of losing.

Fritz Brogan said the excitement was part of the reason he invested in the Deck at Camden Yards, a new outdoor bar at the Hampton Inn across from the stadium. "There's a great sense of pride in Baltimore right now, and we're just riding the wave," he said. "We probably would have pursued this project anyway, but we're much more excited because of the excitement around the team."

In the memorabilia world, Robbie Davis Jr., owner of Robbie's First Base in Lutherville, said this is the first year he can remember balls and jerseys signed by current Orioles outselling those signed by past stars Brooks Robinson and Cal Ripken.

"It'll pick up even more once they start playing, but people are definitely excited," he said. "People think this team is legit now."

Of course, to maintain that excitement, the Orioles will have to avoid the dismal play that dispirited fans from 1998 to 2011. Many baseball analysts expect them to take a step back from the 93 games they won last season, arguing that the team's remarkable performance in close games is unsustainable.

But ESPN analyst Buster Olney, who covered the Orioles as a beat writer for the Baltimore Sun during their last heyday, isn't among the skeptics. He believes in the team's pitching depth and manager Buck Showalter's mastery of the bullpen. He also senses genuine faith, both inside the clubhouse and among fans, whom Olney observed massing at the Sarasota spring training complex in search of early-morning autographs.

"I went down there expecting to pick Toronto to win the division," Olney said. "But after I spent a few days with the Orioles, I changed my mind."

No big additions

The club's narrative hasn't been all sunshine since its playoff run ended in October with a loss to the New York Yankees.

Some fans expected the Orioles to capitalize on the positive vibes and greater cash flow by diving into the free-agent market. It never happened.