Free admission for kids the latest way Orioles hope to court young fans, families

By Chris Kaltenbach and Sarah Meehan 

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[btx_image image_id=”2023″ link=”/” position=”overlapright”][/btx_image]At age 2, Rebecca Kleid already participates in the rituals of Orioles fandom. She cheers, noshes on hot dogs and chants along to shouts of “Let’s go, O’s!” from the stands at Camden Yards with her parents.

And come Sunday, Rebecca will be among the children attending the game at no cost as part of the team’s new “Kids Cheer Free” program.

The program, announced early this month, allows each paying adult to obtain free tickets for two children age 9 or younger to Oriole Park at Camden Yards for upper-deck seats, for games Saturday through April 29 (tickets to later games will be made available on a month-by-month basis). It’s just the latest of several kid-centric attractions the team uses to make the game appeal to the much-younger set and reverse a decline in attendance. In 2017 the Orioles saw an average of 25,042 fans per home game, Camden Yards’ lowest average attendance since 2011.

The “Kids’ Opening Day” game Sunday against the Minnesota Twins will offer a host of activities aimed at youngsters, from face-painting to a chance to participate in pregame festivities. (And its 1:05 p.m. starting time will allow school-age children to attend without staying up late or having to miss school, as Thursday’s traditional Opening Day would have required.) In addition, at every Sunday game during the season, kids ages 4-14 can get onto the field and run the bases for free after the game is over.

“Baseball is something that brings families together and brings generations together,” says Greg Bader, the Orioles’ vice president of communications and marketing. “Our role is to allow as many fans who wish to experience Orioles baseball to do so.”

When it comes to youth entertainment, there’s also the Junior Orioles Dugout Club, the latest incarnation of a Junior Orioles program that dates to the 1960s. The program gives kids 14 and under tickets to six regular-season games, along with a backpack, cap and other accessories, for $25*; about 10,000 kids are enrolled.

While the base-running and Dugout Club aren’t new, the Orioles are expanding Camden Yards’ kids’ corner this year. Located just inside the park near Gate C, the space will have a treehouse activity center and jungle gym, plus a moon bounce, skee-ball, even a life-size Oriole Bird bobblehead. (There’s also a lounge area for parents anxious for a break.)

Kids Cheer Free is the first program of its kind in Major League Baseball, Bader says. But it’s only the latest salvo in a long-term MLB initiative aimed at not only bringing kids to the ballpark, but turning them into baseball fans for life — especially when other, sometimes faster-paced, sports are constantly competing for youngsters’ attention.

Bader declined to provide youth attendance figures for Camden Yards, and representatives for MLB did not respond to a request for comment.

“All of us remember when you had a chance to go to the ballpark, you looked out and you saw how great it was, it was so cool,” says Orioles Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr., who remembers the days of his childhood, when kids could bring their cameras down onto the field at old Memorial Stadium and photograph their favorite players before a designated game. “However you can get kids in the ballpark, those sort of programs will be great.”

T.J. Brightman, president of the marketing firm A. Bright Idea and former vice president of corporate sales for the Orioles, says programs like Kids Cheer Free go beyond boosting attendance. They also place the Orioles among a few teams in MLB focusing on youth audiences.

“The goal was always to maintain your fan base but always come up with programs that you could reach out to a younger fan base,” Brightman says.

Ryan King-White, an associate professor of kinesiology at Towson University who teaches sports management courses, says a range of factors have contributed to a decline in young baseball fans’ numbers.

Because most games begin at night, King-White is skeptical Kids Cheer Free will draw more young fans.

“I don’t see it having that widespread impact that they’re hoping for,” he says.

But letting kids get in for free is just part of an overall effort to keep the price of going to a ballgame down, Bader says. Peter Angelos, the Orioles’ majority owner, has made no secret of his desire to keep tickets affordable; according to a team marketing report in which all 30 major league teams participate, the Orioles are the seventh “most affordable family experience in baseball,” Bader says, with an average ticket price just under $30. The Orioles also have one of the least restrictive “bring-your-own food” policies in the MLB, which can help keep costs down.

“We’ve been catering to families and kids for decades,” he says.

The Orioles also said they will work with fans who have already paid for tickets for young children and are looking to exchange them for free seats through the Kids Cheer Free program.

Micah Kleid, a Pikesville resident, says he bought tickets to take his daughter, Rebecca, to Kids’ Opening Day as soon as the program was announced. He and his wife, Davina, were already considering going to the game, but a free seat for their daughter made the decision easy.

“To buy her a seat, it starts to raise the price,” Kleid says of typical games. “It’s a no-brainer. It just makes it so much easier.”

Kleid has season tickets with his father. And while those can’t be used with the Kids Cheer Free promotion, he says it will free him to attend more big games with his dad, while giving him the option to take Rebecca to games on Sunday afternoons.

MLB, too, is getting in on the act of courting young fans, although many of its efforts appear aimed at making the game itself more popular, rather than the fan experience. Ripken is among many baseball officials and former players recruited for MLB’s “Play Ball” initiative, aimed at making the game more attractive to a younger generation looking for more relentless action and instant gratification than baseball usually allows.

“It’s not one of those things that’s going to be solved overnight. Frankly, it’s a never-ending fight,” John Maroon, president of Maroon PR and Ripken’s media representative, says of the Play Ball initiative. “Baseball is shining a light on their big superstars, the Bryce Harpers, the Manny Machados, that are more exciting, more appealing to kids. Players who are a little more flamboyant in their nature, in the way they play the game. … Maybe some of us old fogies don’t like the bat flip, but guess what? The kids do.”

Some youth programs are even tinkering with the rules, says Ripken, hoping to entice youngsters who can then be introduced to the more traditional game as they get older. Games are being played with only six innings, or with ball-strike counts that start at 2-2, or with runners on base at the start of each inning, or with a set number of batters each inning, as opposed to a set number of outs — all changes designed to quicken the pace and increase the action.

But as much as getting kids to play baseball, getting kids into the habit of going to the ballpark can go a long way to ensuring the future of the game. And the Orioles are at the forefront of that.

Havre de Grace resident Amy Weitzel has been bringing her daughters — Sarah, 10, and Emma, 7 — to Orioles games through the Junior Dugout Club for several years. She and her husband, Ryan Weitzel, take their girls to at least six games a year, where they attended one or two games per season before joining the club. The cost of tickets and food was prohibitive, she said.

“I couldn’t afford to take my family outside of the Dugout Club because it’s too expensive,” she said.

Both Sarah and Emma play Little League softball, and, like their mother, they’ve grown up with a love of baseball — fawning over players like Chris Davis and J.J. Hardy (Emma cried when he left the team, Amy Weitzel said).

While the Dugout Club remains a better deal for Weitzel’s family, she said she sees the appeal of the Kids Cheer Free program for fans who don’t want to commit to multiple games per season.

“I appreciate the Orioles trying to bring in more young fans but I think that they have to incorporate the other costs, too,” Weitzel said.

Overall, Maroon says the Orioles’ Kids Cheer Free program will likely be a “trendsetter” for other MLB teams.

“What the Orioles did was brilliant,” Maroon says.

“When you go to [Oriole Park at Camden Yards] now, there’s kid zones, the mascot’s everywhere, kids get to run the bases at the end of the game every Sunday. And now you’ve got the kids 9 and under getting in free whenever their parents come. It’s a real coup.”