Baltimore hopes to send pro football a dramatic message tomorrow by selling out -- in a day -- the exhibition game scheduled for this summer at Memorial Stadium.
The largely unspoken though equally strong response from pro football is: You'd better sell out the game, period.
In fact, Baltimore is nearly halfway there already: 26,000 seats have been sold through mail order. To achieve its "one-day sellout," more than 30,000 tickets will need to be sold tomorrow.
Experts who follow the National Football League's expansion efforts, through which Baltimore hopes to rejoin the world of pro football, predict Baltimore will sell all 58,000 tickets necessary to fill the stadium for the Aug. 28 Miami Dolphins-New Orleans Saints matchup.
But they also note that Baltimore probably has more to lose than to gain from the spectacle. Their logic: When it comes to voting a city in or out, NFL owners won't pay much attention to exhibition games unless they are a failure.
"I think it [the exhibition game] is important to show that the city is behind the effort. But I don't think it will make or break it," said Rankin Smith, owner of the Atlanta Falcons and a member of the expansion committee.
"If it's a complete flop, that would be a consideration," Mr. Smith said.
All the other cities seeking expansion teams have successfully hosted and sold out exhibition games, Mr. Smith said. And owners will be less concerned with exhibition game records than with such things as the size and value of the television market, the nature and wealth of the prospective owners, and the availability of a quality stadium, he said.
Craig Skiem, director of sports consulting with Coopers & Lybrand in Dallas, said exhibition games are useful only to the extent that they demonstrate fan support. Such support is vital to the profitability of a team, providing both stadium ticket sales and the high television ratings necessary for TV revenues, he said.
Two of the cities considered leading contenders for a footballteam -- Baltimore and St. Louis -- have had teams in the past, and their track records are clear. The Baltimore Colts moved to Indianapolis in 1984, and the St. Louis Cardinals moved to Phoenix after the 1987 season.
Both cities boasted high attendance for their former teams, although fans began dwindling away in the years leading up to the teams' moves. Observers say fans of both teams lost interest when the owners began talking of moving their teams.
Then there is the issue of expectations. Like a presidential candidate winning a primary but not meeting advance expectations, Baltimore needs to do well to avoid the appearance of failure.
"The expectation is you will be successful," Mr. Skiem said. "If you are not, it could be a negative."
Herbert J. Belgrad, chairman of the Maryland Stadium Authority and a leader in Baltimore's football efforts, said the city has avoided hosting exhibition games because it felt it already had a solid record of fan support for the Colts.
But competing cities were beginning to talk up the lack of Baltimore's preseason participation, Mr. Belgrad said.
"There were people who were pointing out that we were the only expansion city that hadn't had one and that maybe there was a reason," Mr. Belgrad said.
Last May, Mr. Belgrad flew to the Dallas meeting of the NFL owners and convinced the Dolphins and Saints to move their game to Baltimore. It had been scheduled for New Orleans.
He picked that game because it was the fourth and final week of the preseason -- meaning the first-string players probably would start -- and because both coaches have Baltimore connections.
Miami Coach Don Shula played with and coached the Baltimore Colts, and Saints Coach Jim Mora coached the Baltimore Stars of the former U.S. Football League.
Mr. Belgrad had to guarantee the teams a total of $1 million, from television contracts, tickets and other revenue.
He's confident the game will sell out tomorrow.
"The question isn't 'if,' it's whether we sell out before noon or after noon," Mr. Belgrad said. He hopes to have the results of the sale announced during Sunday's Super Bowl.
That's bound to have impact, he said. "I don't think it's ever been done before," he said.
But even that is no guarantee of winning a team, said Mr. Skiem, the sport consultant. Buffalo, N.Y., has consistently generated high turnouts for minor-league baseball. But baseball officials passed the city over last year when adding two new franchises. They picked Denver and Miami.
"It's only one game, and it's a special event," Mr. Skiem said. "NFL teams have 10 home games a season, and the ability to support a team over the long run is key."
Selling out in one day, however, could be a plus, he said. "Things like that are positive. Any nuance or spin you can put on it can help."
To that, one competitor is already skeptical.
"You're not selling out in a day," said Pepper Rodgers, who is working to bring an expansion team to Memphis, Tenn.