Bullets drive draws only dribble of fans

KEN ROSENTHAL

November 07, 1992|By KEN ROSENTHAL

Paul "Bear" Hoffman isn't asking for much. But as an original Baltimore Bullet, and the team's general manager from 1963 to 1965, he has some old programs and uniforms he'd like to sell.

NBA memorabilia.

And no one in Baltimore wants it.

"There's no interest," said the 67-year-old Hoffman, who is preparing to retire after working 20 years as a vocational supervisor at the Maryland Rehabilitation Center in Baltimore.

"You can sell football and baseball cards. You can sell Colts and you can sell Orioles. But as far as basketball, they don't even want to take it on consignment. They [dealers] say if I get out of the city -- go to New York, Philadelphia or Boston -- that's where I can sell it."

New York, Philadelphia and Boston were original NBA cities. Baltimore was vacated by the league 20 years ago. It would be one thing if this were a simple tale of scorn. But few cared about the Bullets then, and few care now.

No one ever debates Harvey Grant's $17 million contract on the radio talk shows, not when there's an Orioles Double-A prospect TC to consider. At all the usual places -- offices, playgrounds, bars -- the Bullets are the hoop du bore.

What gives?

The NBA is the hottest professional sports league. The Bullets play four games a year at the Baltimore Arena. And the dreaded "Washington" ID is nowhere to be found on their uniforms or literature.

What gives?

Well, the team stinks, with only one winning season since 1982-83. And its arena -- the paint-it-black Capital Centre -- ranks among the most dismal and remote places in all of professional sports.

The fact is, Washington doesn't care much either -- the Bullets ranked 26th in home attendance last year, ahead of only the Los Angeles Clippers. Still, their front office figures if it can just improve the product, the Bullets will become as much a regional phenomenon as a certain baseball team we know.

It's not such a wacky idea, because the NBA is a magnet every bit as powerful as Camden Yards. The Orioles draw 25 percent of their fans from the D.C. area. The Bullets draw 8-11 percent from Baltimore and Baltimore County, 15 percent if you include Howard and northern Anne Arundel counties.

"It's not an easy sell," said Rick Moreland, the team's vice president of Baltimore operations. "I have five full-time ticket sales people in this office, and they really have to work hard to sell these games.

"As I perceive it, these are four NBA events coming to Baltimore. Our approach is to push the NBA. We want the affection for the Bullets to happen naturally."

So, instead of conceding the market, the Bullets are rededicating to it. They've brought in Moreland, their former public relations director. They've doubled the size of their local staff from five to 10. They've assigned community relations director Bonnie Downing to the city one day a week, and they're negotiating with the MTA to provide round-trip bus service from Baltimore to the Capital Centre.

You can hear the Bullets Game of the Week on WBAL. You can watch their new 30-minute TV show weekends on Channel 2. The strategy is subtle, but deliberate. If the team improves, it just might work.

Problem is, the Bullets struggled to sell out their four Baltimore games last year, discounting large blocks of tickets for sponsors when they could not move them at full price.

The average attendance during their years in Baltimore never exceeded 7,635 -- and they reached that peak in 1968-69, when Wes Unseld was a rookie and the team finished 57-25.

"It was the facility," Hoffman said, referring to the 12,054-seat Arena, then known as the Baltimore Civic Center. "The thing was obsolete at the time it was built."

Even today, the Arena remains a source of frustration for the Bullets, who pray the scoreboard clock won't malfunction again this season. But they're sticking it out, even though they could play their Baltimore games at the 18,756-seat Capital Centre and draw bigger crowds.

Of course, the Capital Centre -- 37 miles from downtown Baltimore -- is a problem all its own. Still, the place would be tolerable, if only the Bullets had a Michael Jordan to brighten it up. "Winning makes everyone look like a marketing genius," team president Susan O'Malley said. "Those people in Chicago are really, really smart."

O'Malley said that tongue-in-cheek, but you get her point. One of these days, the Bullets again will join the NBA's elite teams. Maybe then Paul Hoffman can sell his old uniforms. Maybe then Baltimore will respond.

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