This is Baltimore’s own version of “Sliding Doors”: Two pro sports teams hit a fork in the road and went on radically divergent paths.
When the Maryland General Assembly passed House Bill 896 to free up to $600 million each in state bonds for stadium improvements for two venues built in the ‘90s, the Ravens signed a lease and got to work. The Orioles waited as team CEO John Angelos described vague, grand ambitions of development around Camden Yards … and now find themselves weeks away from their lease expiration with no new deal in place.
That’s where we are in December: As the Orioles and Gov. Wes Moore’s administration furiously attempt to hammer out an agreement that is more palatable to the state officials charged with scrutinizing it, the Ravens were having a party. A brass band literally played outside the doors of M&T Bank Stadium on Tuesday morning, trumpeting all the things to come.
Team officials handed out packets with digital renderings, but fans will start seeing changes soon: a new two-story beer hall by 2024; a new north plaza and an expanded upper concourse by 2025; a new south plaza and retail store by 2026. To put it into perspective: The home of the Ravens should feel newly refurbished and polished before Lamar Jackson even gets to the end of his contract.
As ever, the highest-paying ticket buyers will get the sweetest (suite-est?) perks, with new field-level club seating and other exclusive bar and lounge areas. But the rank-and-file will feel the gleam, too — as they should when there’s up to $430 million in taxpayer bonds driving the project.
“Steve Bisciotti and the Ravens are really committed to Baltimore, and downtown Baltimore specifically,” Ravens team president Sashi Brown told me. “We think this is an important investment. We’re really eager to see the Orioles extend as well, and I know they’re on the precipice of that.”
It felt notable that anyone in M&T Bank Stadium was willing to mention the team on the other side of the parking lot at all. Maryland Stadium Authority officials, who are overseeing and partnering on many of the renovations, told attending media that they were only prepared to talk about the Ravens on Tuesday — asking on-the-record questions about the Orioles would not get a response.
Maybe Angelos and Moore can still pull together what would now feel like a Christmas miracle. Maybe the Orioles and the state will find a solution that makes sense (and can get the proper approvals) by the end of the year. But it feels more and more like a boondoggle that is dragging down all involved, including the city itself as we grind our teeth with anxiety.
Perhaps the most telling thing is, under the lease terms that were almost presented last week, Orioles fans would not have seen the dramatic changes in the next three years that Ravens fans are about to experience.
One detail uncovered by The Baltimore Banner’s Pamela Wood and Andy Kostka is that the lease would have given the Orioles and the state four years to get the necessary approvals to figure out the private development rights in the stadium’s surrounding public properties. In that four-year period, the state would only release up to $45 million of the $600 million in bonds until a 30-year lease could be finalized.
In renovation terms, that’s pocket change: The Ravens spent $120 million of their own money on new video boards, sound systems, escalators and elevators in upgrades they wrapped up in 2019. Oriole Park could use all of those things and more — but Angelos was willing to agree to a deal that would delay such improvements until his development rights were settled.
This illustrates a dramatic departure in priorities between the Ravens and Orioles: Since House Bill 896 was passed, Angelos has bemoaned the existential future of the team’s finances, suggesting ticket price hikes that would be punitive to fans while pushing for development rights on public land that would help him make a pretty penny. Bisciotti and the Ravens recognized the gift of state money for what it was: a chance to enhance the game experience and perhaps make a buck selling pricey ticket packages for new suites.
To be clear: It makes sense that the state would protect itself in the short term with a delayed release of the funds until a multidecade lease is finished. Why should we taxpayers pour in money to renovations if the Orioles could still threaten to leave? But the fact that Angelos agreed to the provision at all makes it clear what is really most important to him.
The Ravens and Orioles have both had plenty of success on the field this year. Only one franchise will complement the winning with dramatic fan enhancements keeping with the times.
Like M&T Bank Stadium, Camden Yards has good bones. It has a layout that set the model for future ballparks, and its glorious showcase of the Baltimore skyline is a treasured hallmark. But when Maryland approved the stadium bonds, it had just two goals: keep its teams in downtown Baltimore, and modernize the facilities for fans to enjoy.
The Ravens have fulfilled those terms. The Orioles have not.
As baseball fans continue to twist in the wind wondering when and how a long-term lease will get done, the divergence with football will only continue to manifest. After this football season ends, M&T Bank Stadium will see a flurry of construction, helmets on and shovels out, and piece by piece the improvements will start to take shape.
Even when the Orioles and the state come to terms, how long will fans at Camden Yards have to wait for similar improvements?
So far, only the Ravens have publicly shared anything resembling blueprints, and it might be that way for a long time.