NFL expansion hopefuls' sales pitch no quick snap

August 24, 1992|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,Staff Writer

In Charlotte, N.C., hundreds of fans got down on the dirt and spelled "NFL" with their bodies. Jacksonville, Fla., peddled more than 300,000 tickets to a series of preseason games. And Memphis, Tenn., circulated photographs of one of its boosters bungee jumping in New Zealand.

All of the cities competing for an NFL team say they are the best choice because of solid, economic fundamentals. But this has not kept them from resorting to flashy -- and occasionally silly -- stunts to attract the attention of the NFL, which is scheduled this fall to pick two sites for new football teams.

The cities still in the running are Baltimore, St. Louis, Charlotte, Jacksonville and Memphis.

"Occasionally you need to have time for the fans to express themselves," said Max Muhleman, head of Muhleman Marketing Inc., a sports marketing firm in Charlotte that is aiding that city's effort to land a team.

The NFL says public events are fine, but they won't make or break it for a city.

"Some of the things the cities do are helpful, but it comes back to 'Can a team be successful over the long term in that market?' " said Roger Goodell, director of development for the NFL.

Football backers in the finalist cities, including Baltimore, say the promotions serve a dual purpose: They keep fans enthusiastic during the drawn-out competition, and they demonstrate interest in football.

Preseason games are the most common, and expensive, promotions. With Thursday's Miami Dolphins-New Orleans Saints game in Baltimore, all the finalist cities, and many of the also-rans, will have been host to exhibition games.

The NFL is glad to oblige because the host cities make a point of selling out the games, which don't count in the standings and often are attended sparsely when played at home. The hosts also guarantee the teams minimum payments; Baltimore, which hopes to turn a profit from the game, has promised both teams at least $500,000.

Baltimore likes to brag about selling out the game in a single day. But it is the last city to host a preseason game, a fact that was not lost on competitors.

"Every other city has had a game. There was innuendo that we couldn't do it," said Herbert J. Belgrad, chairman of the Maryland Stadium Authority and a leader of the effort to return the NFL to Baltimore.

Baltimore managed a rapid sellout, although not quite the 110 dTC minutes stated in promotional material. Tickets went on sale on a bitterly cold day last January and about 33,000 were sold in 150 minutes, many to fans who had spent up to 30 hours in line. Another 26,000 tickets had been sold by advance mail order.

If that's not enough evidence of fan support, a couple of other events were scheduled: a "Footbawlmer Hon" sand sculpture contest at the Inner Harbor, an arm-wrestling match between ex-Oriole Boog Powell and ex-Colt Tom Matte and a downtown pep rally at noon this Wednesday featuring the 140-member Baltimore Colts Marching Band, one of the city's most enduring symbols of football fanaticism.

Mr. Belgrad said the events build enthusiasm about the game and reduce the risks of no-shows. A nationally televised game before a partially filled stadium would be a setback to the city's efforts, he said.

All the competing cities boast strong attendance at their games. Charlotte has played host to three games, including one that sold 69,117 tickets, the largest attendance at a neutral-site preseason game in the NFL, according to Charlotte's Mr. Muhleman.

Jacksonville held six preseason games over the past six years, selling an average of 55,000 seats for each. St. Louis' two games sold 50,000 and 53,000 seats, respectively. Memphis sold out four preseason games over the past five years at the 63,500-seat Liberty Bowl.

Other efforts by Charlotte: a downtown pep rally in June that attracted 10,000 fans in the rain. A band played "Nothing Could be Finer than the NFL in Carolina."

The most memorable moment, captured on videotape and mailed to NFL headquarters, came when several hundred fans laid down on the stadium site, spelling out "NFL" with their bodies.

Jacksonville held a name-the-team contest last year, garnering 12,000 entries, including the Sharks and Sting Rays, in two weeks.

Rick Catlett, executive vice president of Touchdown Jacksonville!, has no illusions about the impact of preseason games or other events.

"If it comes down to two cities that are in a dead heat, and the chances are pretty slim that that's going to happen, then that might make a difference," Mr. Catlett said.

St. Louis raised some eyebrows in the NFL when in 1990 it started taking $25 deposits from fans for season tickets -- two years before the franchises were to be awarded and four years before the first scheduled game.

About 30,000 fans sent in their money, but the program made the league uneasy and it was suspended. The money has been transferred to an interest-bearing account and fans can get refunds, said Allison Hawks, a spokeswoman for the St. Louis effort.

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