New stadium not the answer for ailing Patriots

PRO FOOTBALL

August 18, 1991|By VITO STELLINO

When the New England Patriots drew only 16,757 fans for their exhibition game against the Washington Redskins last Saturday night, they set negative records.

Not only was it the smallest crowd ever for a non-strike game at Foxboro Stadium, but it also was the smallest non-strike crowd to watch the Patriots play since the Stupor Bowl.

Remember that game, the final one of the 1981 season at Memorial Stadium? Remember the 1-14 Baltimore Colts against the 2-13 Patriots for the first draft pick?

Only 17,073 showed up at Memorial Stadium to see the Colts stumble to a 23-21 victory that cost them the No. 1 pick.

The Patriots franchise is now as sick as the Colts were then. The fans are turned off, and the owner, Victor Kiam, has financial problems. He has to come up with $40 million by October to buy out Fran Murray, who owns 49 percent of the team and is attempting to get an expansion team in St. Louis.

The only difference is that the Patriots are in a top 10 television market. The NFL wasn't too worried about losing Baltimore and St. Louis. It gets concerned about possibly losing a top 10 market, because the networks get upset.

The problem is that the NFL may not understand how to cure a sick franchise. It's only answer is to build a new stadium.

William V. Bidwill said he needed to leave St. Louis because he couldn't compete in Busch Stadium. So now he's in Phoenix with a bigger stadium and more empty seats. A stadium helps only if the fans can be lured into it.

Commissioner Paul Tagliabue has said the Patriots can't compete in Foxboro Stadium and wants to meet with Massachusetts Gov. William Weld to talk about replacing it.

Foxboro Stadium is a problem. It's in a poor location, doesn't have club seats or adequate skyboxes and has mostly bleacher seats.

But the stadium isn't the real problem.

Take it from a man who knows. Bob Leffler, the head of the Leffler Agency, is an expert on selling seats in antiquated stadiums.

The last director of sales for the Colts in 1983, he's been the marketing and promotion agency for the Cleveland Browns since 1985. The Browns' stadium is something less than the Taj Mahal.

"I don't want to hear about the stadium," Leffler said. "The whole stadium thing is a myth."

He still believes the Colts could have been turned around in bTC Memorial Stadium if Bob Irsay hadn't packed the moving vans in 1984.

Leffler was working on a broad-based marketing campaign before the team left. He still thinks he could have gotten the Colts' season ticket base up to the 28,000-30,000 range by 1984.

"We were coming back. What you've got going for you is selling an afternoon of NFL football and marketing to groups. You've got to put a happy face on it and take the team out of the eye of the hurricane. The NFL is good at marketing nationally, but it hasn't had to do things in sick towns," Leffler said.

Leffler never got time to prove he could do it. Now, the Patriots are running out of time.

It's silly to suggest there aren't football fans in New England. The New York Giants, who were popular there before the Patriots were founded in 1960, drew 60,410 last year in Foxboro Stadium and figure to draw another big crowd Saturday for the final exhibition game.

Now, the NFL has to figure out how to attract them to watch the Patriots.

A Patriots move would give Baltimore a second chance for a team if it doesn't get an expansion team, but losing a big market

would be a headache for the league.

*

When Joe Gibbs took off his coach's hat and put on his owner's racing shirt last week, he was virtually a different man.

As the coach of the Redskins, he's often late for news conferences and frequently has his players on the field or in meetings when the locker room is open to the media.

He's not alone in this attitude. Coach Marv Levy of the Buffalo Bills skipped a Super Bowl news conference last year, and coaches often close locker rooms to the media. The league never has conveyed the idea to the coaches that they're involved in the selling of the game.

As a racing owner, though, Gibbs was very aware of the idea of selling his product. He had a long news conference last Tuesday -- it started right on time -- and it was followed by a telephone news conference with racing writers around the country.

"We've got to sell batteries," Gibbs said in reference to the

battery company that's his main sponsor.

OC There's nothing like being an owner to change a man's attitude.

*

The last two exhibition games in cities vying for expansion teams will be held next week. The Los Angeles Rams will play the Houston Oilers Thursday night in Memphis, Tenn., and the Washington Redskins will play the New York Jets in Columbia, S.C., a game sponsored by the Charlotte, N.C., group.

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