A hard-driving Bugel calls for fan support

September 28, 1990|By Vito Stellino | Vito Stellino,Sun Staff Correspondent

HERNDON, Va. -- Coach Joe Bugel will do just about anything to attract Phoenix Cardinals fans to home games, short of driving them to the stadium himself.

On second thought, if some fans don't have a way to get to Sun Devil Stadium, Bugel might be available.

"I'm going to do that [drive fans to the stadium] Sunday," he said jokingly. "I've got my little black hat and bus out front. There's nothing wrong with that. We need that 12th man out there cheering."

The problem is that, at times, the Cardinals seem to have only about 12 fans. Bugel, who will coach his first regular-season home game Sunday when the Cardinals play host to his former team, the Washington Redskins, is trying to pump some enthusiasm into a franchise that has not won a championship since 1947, when it was in Chicago.

The move from St. Louis to Phoenix in 1988 was supposed to give the Cardinals a new look, but it has turned out to be a public relations disaster.

At the time, Phoenix was considered the best untapped pro football market in the country. When Cardinals owner Bill Bidwill announced he was moving the team, it was taken for granted that the 74,000-seat Sun Devil Stadium would be sold out on game days.

There were such great expectations that season ticket holders of the now-defunct Arizona Outlaws of the United States Football League sued to get an opportunity to buy tickets.

That was before Bidwill announced that the average ticket price would be $38.

To entice him to move, Phoenix officials had told Bidwill that the fans would pay such prices, but they misjudged the market. There was so much public resentment over the ticket prices that only 55,000 season tickets were sold the first year.

The team attracted a sellout crowd for its first regular-season home game, but hasn't had a sellout since. Bidwill reduced ticket prices to an average of $36 last year, but season ticket sales still plunged to 37,000.

It didn't help that the team went 7-9 and 5-11 the first two years. After Gene Stallings was fired as head coach with five games left last year, the club drew only 33,297 for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and 38,670 for the Redskins.

It was even more embarrassing when the club drew 56,071 for the final home game against the Denver Broncos, and most of the fans wore orange, rooted for the Broncos and booed the Cardinals.

A Denver official said the club had never traveled so far for a home game.

It was time for drastic action.

The Cardinals virtually started over this year: They slashed their average ticket price to about $26, started a high-powered marketing campaign and hired former Washington assistant coach Bugel.

The results have been mixed. Season ticket sales dipped again to about 35,000. Sunday's home opener against the Redskins is expected to draw about 50,000 -- an increase of more than 10 percent over the crowd of 44,201 that the team drew for last year's opener against the San Diego Chargers.

"There are some great sports fans out here," Bugel said. "It's just a matter of putting a good product on the field, being positive, which we are, and I think we'll get the fans back."

The Cardinals are off to a 1-2 start, their only victory coming in a upset of the Philadelphia Eagles.

The Phoenix home opener against Washington would not seem to be much of an attraction -- the Cardinals are 4-26 in their last 30 games against the Redskins, including a 31-0 defeat Sept. 9 at RFK Stadium.

But Bugel is upbeat.

"The fans who show up should get an entertaining game," he said.

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