In a move believed to be unprecedented in major sports, the Baltimore Orioles will offer free admission to Orioles Park at Camden Yards to any child age nine and younger all season, part of a larger youth outreach program the club is developing.
The effort arrives as teams and properties across sports wrestle with how best to attract youth audiences. The issue has been particularly thorny in baseball, which has seen its average TV audience rise to 57 years old, according to data from research outfit Magna Global, and frequently is tagged as having a graying audience.
But the Orioles, which have seen home attendance slide each of the last three years, have developed a dramatic plan of their own to engage kids, even if it ends up costing them revenue.
The “Kids Cheer Free” promotion offers two free upper-deck tickets for children nine and under with the purchase of every full-price adult ticket. The offer can be multiplied, allowing a family with four kids age nine and younger to attend for free with two regular adult tickets. The free tickets will be subject to availability on a month-by-month basis. The lone initial blacked-out date for “Kids Cheer Free” is Opening Day on March 29.
The offer represents one of the most aggressive marketing and sales efforts of any type in the industry to attract younger fans.
“Our goal is nothing less than to make Camden Yards the most kid-friendly and budget-friendly ballpark in the game,” said John Angelos, Orioles executive vice president, who led the internal development of “Kids Cheer Free” over the past several months. “Outreach to youth is obviously a big priority across baseball, and we’re trying to go above and beyond and get more kids in the ballpark.”
“Kids Cheer Free” is part of an enhanced series of youth-driven efforts the Orioles are pursuing including a remodeling and expansion of its kids’ play area, adding more fireworks nights to its promotional calendar, and working with concessionaire Delaware North to offer more variety in the sizes of food and beverage items. A second play area at the ballpark is being planned for a 2019 opening, with the Orioles in discussions with Populous on the project.
Other existing programs, such as kids running the bases after Sunday home games and youth-focused giveaway items, will continue in 2018.
Camden Yards’ capacity of 45,971 is MLB’s eighth largest, and the Orioles topped 40,000 in attendance just seven times at home last year as the club sagged to its first losing season since 2011, suggesting there should be plenty of ticket inventory available to accommodate the ambitious program. As a result, Angelos said it is possible the program could turn out to be a moneymaker, particularly once concession and merchandise sales are included. But again, their primary goal is to remove barriers to fandom.
“The first group of people typically priced out of a ballpark is kids, and we’re trying to attack that,” Angelos said. “Whether this turns out to be a net negative [financially], cash neutral, or cash positive for us, I don’t know. But the important thing is that we’re reaching out and being as accessible as we possibly can.”
The Orioles’ move expands significantly upon many other youth-driven team promotions in baseball such as kids’ clubs that typically offer a few free tickets as part of an annual membership, or free and discounted admission offers tied to a particular game or series. MLB clubs also typically offer free admission for infants and toddlers but require them to sit on a parent’s lap.
At the league level, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred has made youth outreach a priority in his tenure, believing participation will drive interest and attendance.
The league has focused on several programs, including the three-year-old Play Ball, which encourages participation in baseball and softball.
The efforts are believed to have helped spark sizable increases in baseball and softball participation. Data from the Sports & Fitness Industry Association for 2016 showed a 7.7 percent increase in overall baseball participation, an 8.1 percent increase for slow-pitch softball, double-digit percentage increases among casual play, and baseball and softball combining to rank as the most-participated team sports in the U.S.
“We’ve made some solid strides in this area. The recent data has been really encouraging, and we’re looking forward to more good news,” said Chris Marinak, MLB executive vice president of strategy, technology and innovation.
Many of the MLB programs such as Play Ball, Reviving Baseball In Inner Cities and others are focused primarily on non-ballpark settings. Angelos said the club’s efforts complement those programs by focusing on the in-venue experience.