Playing to a sellout crowd for an exhibition game in a would-be expansion location doesn't mean that much to the National Football League. It has happened in Memphis, St. Louis and at two places in North Carolina. Provincialism aside, Baltimore must refrain from climbing atop the dome of city hall and bragging on itself.
What should be done -- and it's something the Maryland Stadium Authority is considering -- is to find a way to add about 2,000 temporary seats to Memorial Stadium. This would then allow the city to reach an all-time attendance record for any kind of professional football game staged in Baltimore.
Now that's something the governor, the mayor and Herb Belgrad, chairman of the stadium authority, could run with. After all, Baltimore had a football team for 35 years. It won its share of championships, enjoyed support at the box office and had a fanatical following.
Yet the largest audience to ever watch a game here was in 1983, not a good year on the field, when the turnout against the Pittsburgh Steelers reached 61,479, mainly because of the influx of spectators from Western Pennsylvania. Now to the New Orleans Saints-Miami Dolphins exhibition here on Aug. 27. At last count, the number of seats sold was 59,428.
Belgrad and assistant Walter Gutowski hailed the suggestion of going for a record as a "great idea." Gutowski, however, wondered where they'd find the space for installing extra seats but was serious enough to head for Memorial Stadium to see what he could accomplish. Install sky-hooks, if need be, but try it.
This is far from a difficult endeavor. It's entirely reasonable and attainable. "Baltimore needs some thing extra to gain the NFL's attention," said Tom Matte, a Baltimore Colt for 12 years, who was the master of ceremonies at a noon news conference yesterday when plans were outlined for a lineup of festivities that begins Aug. 22 and carries up to kickoff time.
"I think if Baltimore drew enough fans to establish a record, it would make impressive public relations points," continued Matte.
"The game is incidental to the league and is more or less looked on as another stop on the exhibition circuit. You can bet, though, the NFL owners and the league office would be talking the next day about a record crowd gathering at an exhibition in Baltimore. This would be another plus to add to the resume. I'm all for it. Imagine the crowd reaction in Memorial Stadium if it's announced to the fans that night and those in the radio and national TV audience that they were responsible for setting a record for pro football in Baltimore?"
It may be a mere detail that, in the final analysis, isn't all that hTC important. But go for it. Hosting the exhibition, to begin with, in the words of an NFL official, is nothing more than "colorization." The visiting teams each receive guarantees of about $500,000 ++ and the stadium authority will profit, too, but nothing to compare to the Saints and Dolphins.
Since Baltimore is so close to the 61,479 figure, there's no reason why it shouldn't take dead aim. It would mean wire service stories out of Baltimore would include, in the lead, the fact the city had produced an all-time pro football crowd count. Other than that, it becomes a mere report of two teams putting the finishing touches on the exhibition schedule.
That two NFL teams are coming here to play an exhibition doesn't qualify as any kind of a distinction but if the attendance equates to a record for pro football in Baltimore it would be an attention-getter. Baltimore, in this respect, would be able to separate itself from the rest of the expansion cities in doing something none of the others could achieve.
Joe Ehrmann, a former Colts tackle, is hosting a crab feast the night before the game at Martin's West and more than 70 players from Baltimore's football alumni will be present, along with corporate leaders and fans. Matt DeVito, chief executive of the Rouse Co., is chairman. All funds raised go to Ehrmann's inner-city ministry, "The Door."
"It's another dimension that will bring attention to Baltimore and to football," he said. "The corporate community has been terrific. We have only about 400 tickets to sell at $75 each or $750 for a table of 10. This also demonstrates to the league how much interest is here."
Selling the NFL on where it should place expansion clubs has nothing to do with eating crabs with old Colts. It's another form of drum-beating, making the best of the situation at hand and positioning. Even posturing.
Producing an all-time crowd total for Baltimore's exhibition game can only help; not hurt. It would continue to separate Baltimore from the rest of the pack.