Major League Baseball will look a lot different in 2020. Among the biggest changes caused by the coronavirus pandemic is the shortened season — down to 60 games from 162 — and the absence of fans in the stands when play begins July 23.
For the league’s 30 clubs, including the Baltimore Orioles, this uncertain time presents myriad challenges, including keeping fans engaged during the two-month season.
“There’s no script for this type of season,” Orioles senior vice president and chief revenue officer T.J. Brightman said during a Zoom interview with PressBox July 14.
When spring training ground to a halt March 12, Brightman and Jennifer Grondahl, the team’s senior vice president of community development and communications, realized their approach to fan outreach for the 2020 season would have to drastically change. They knew there would be an increased focus on community work and online content, so Brightman and Grondahl got to work.
In the months since the league shut down, the club has retooled its social media presence, connecting fans with video messages from manager Brandon Hyde and players such as David Hess. Since returning to Camden Yards July 3, the team has focused its content on the player workouts and anticipation of returning to play. One video of a close-up perspective of Chris Davis taking batting practice was particularly successful, Grondahl said.
“Some of the things you’re having to do in this situation end up being really great content. It’s the mother of invention,” she said. “We might try [more] of this and give fans that up-close experience even though they’re not here.”
Beyond the online presence, the Orioles are working on a series of community initiatives to better connect with its fans. The club’s Birdland Community Heroes effort has become a virtual program focused on honoring those helping during the pandemic. Those workers — be it on the front lines, at food banks or anywhere else — are receiving $5,000 grants from the team, Grondahl said. She added that the team will also introduce another community outreach project during opening week but could not give further details yet.
As the season begins, the Orioles will also launch the “O’s at Home” program to create a more immersive fan experience. The club has not released full details of its plans yet, as it is still partially in development, but Brightman said to expect some surprises.
“We’re still having discussions up until the final hour of what that presentation is going to be, … but we want [fans] to be engaged and have the same experience as if they were at the park,” he said.
Replicating that game day experience at Camden Yards begins July 29 as Baltimore hosts the Miami Marlins. The team plans to use multiple platforms, including the television broadcast, social media and the MLB Ballpark app, to immerse fans as best as possible.
Grondahl said fans can count on hearing familiar voices and seeing familiar ballpark visuals during broadcasts. The team wants to tap into the nostalgia of going to a game while being cognizant of the hardships Americans are facing right now, she said.
“We want to be present in what we’re facing as a country, as Baltimore, and recognize that people have a lot on their mind right now, so we want to do that in a really optimistic and positive way,” Grondahl said. “But there’s no way to replace that Opening Day experience.”
The club also has to figure out a new way to celebrate the anniversary of one of its biggest milestones. Cal Ripken broke Lou Gehrig’s consecutive games played streak on Sept. 6, 1995, and the Orioles originally planned an in-person recognition of Ripken in honor of the moment’s 25th anniversary.
But that plan was scrapped, and the team is working on a virtual ceremony to honor Ripken during its Sept. 6 game against the New York Yankees, Brightman said.
“We wouldn’t have a season without being able to raise our cap to Cal,” he said.
And so with the Orioles set to kick off the 2020 campaign July 24 in Boston, Brightman and Grondahl are moving forward. Despite this year’s uncertainties, they believe their on-the-fly efforts to immerse fans will pay off.
“We can’t make up for that experience 100 percent, but we know how important it is and we don’t want to miss a beat,” Grondahl said. “We’re going to be open to feedback from our fans.”
For more from Brightman and Grondahl, watch the full interview here:
Photo Credit: Kenya Allen/PressBox