Fans must stamp NFL ticket, but O's attendance is true Exhibit A

Ken Rosenthal

January 24, 1992|By Ken Rosenthal

What if this wonderful NFL exhibition doesn't sell out in five seconds flat? Does Baltimore have a nervous breakdown? Does Robert Irsay proclaim, "See, I was right!"

The NFL would never pose those questions in such harsh terms, but it's responsible for tomorrow's demeaning little exercise, in which ordinary citizens turn into circus animals who leap on command.

Heaven help the expansion hopeful that won't play along. Even if the price is $25 per ticket. In the middle of a recession. For a meaningless game. That might be rescheduled for network TV.

There's no choice but to participate in this charade. But forgive any neighbors who are sick and tired and not going to take it, whose first instinct is to shout, "Enough!"

We all want football.

But at what price?

The Colts' departure was perhaps the most psychologically damaging franchise move in sports history. Baltimore is still reeling nearly a decade later, and now it must play the fool.

The NFL is tired of the moral argument, of course, but this is no time to let up. What the league fails to understand is that this isn't just about the Colts, it's about the entire sports personality of a city.

A personality that soured.

Only one major-league team remains in Baltimore, a team that is bound to remain at least 10 more years, yet preys on the fear of Mayflower vans rolling into another dark night.

The Orioles get blind loyalty. They get a new stadium. They give little in return.

This is the Colts' legacy. Decent people overreact, tainting the special relationship between the Orioles and their fans. The season-ticket furor is only the latest example. Fans always think the Orioles are out to get them, just like the Colts did.

Often enough, they're right.

The only legitimate issue here is whether club owner Eli Jacobs kept too many choice seats for himself. The Orioles can address it simply by releasing a seating chart showing who has what.

Of course, they'll never do that -- just like they'll never release a financial statement disclosing their total profits, not just those they confess when calculating their rent.

Granted, no private corporation conducts itself in such a public manner. But this private corporation exists for an utterly captive audience. It succeeds regardless of the quality of its product.

The stadium change is one reason.

The NFL guilt trip is another.

Name a franchise move with a more pronounced effect.

The Giants and Dodgers left New York in 1958, but the Mets replaced them in the National League four years later.

Two baseball teams left Washington, but the community is more transient and willingly embraced the Orioles.

NFL teams left St. Louis and Oakland, but neither city fears losing its baseball club as a result. St. Louis still has the NHL. Oakland still has the NBA. Those franchises helped cushion the blow.

This isn't to say Baltimore is more deserving of an expansion team than St. Louis or Oakland; if anything, they're all equal. But if the NFL is so anxious to use ticket sales as a yardstick, try 2.5 million last year for a baseball team that lost 95 games.

It was the third highest total in major-league history by a club with 90 or more losses -- ironically right behind the 1990 St. Louis Cardinals. And it can't be attributed solely to the closing of Memorial Stadium. The Orioles drew 2.4 million the year before despite losing 85 games.

NFL teams play eight home games a season.

Somehow, we'd scrounge up enough fans.

Herb Belgrad, executive director of the Maryland Stadium Authority, didn't want this exhibition initially. He didn't want to lower the city's dignity. He didn't want substance yielding to style.

But from all indications, the NFL sent a not-too-subtle message, and Belgrad changed his mind for Miami-New Orleans. It is not his fault. It is, quite literally, the game he must play. With no guarantees, mind you. Heck, the NFL might decide not to expand.

So, at what price football?

Do we embrace Malcolm Glazer, knowing he might be the next Eli Jacobs? Do we embrace a league that welcomes Robert Irsay but might frown on Boogie Weinglass? Do we buy these $25 tickets tomorrow? Do we buy the whole thing?

The answer, unfortunately, is yes. See you on line tomorrow.

But not with a smile.

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