'Touchdowners' help city to sales goal line Volunteer group aids seat drive

September 22, 1993|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,Staff Writer

When the city's NFL boosters set out to sell luxury seats this summer, they found help from an unexpected ally: a spontaneous army of volunteer salespeople who twisted arms and cajoled friends.

Dubbed the "Touchdowners," the group was formed after several die-hard football fans contacted the Maryland Stadium Authority looking to help. The authority, a key player in the city's efforts to land an NFL expansion team, had two months to find renters for 100 sky boxes and 7,500 club seats. The goal was reached about a week before the Sept. 3 deadline.

At first puzzled with the requests from fans offering assistance, the stadium authority decided to bring the volunteers together to see what could be accomplished. About 30 people attended an inaugural meeting at the Cross Keys Inn a few weeks before the July 1 kickoff of the premium seat campaign.

What emerged was loosely based on similar groups of other sports teams, such as the Orioles' Designated Hitters. That organization was founded in 1979 by then-Mayor William Donald Schaefer and local business people who sell Orioles season tickets on behalf of the team. Qualifying Designated Hitters are invited to Orioles spring training.

"It really was a spontaneous reaction from the people of Baltimore," said Walt Gutowski, the stadium authority official who oversaw club-seat sales -- the NFL's test of fan support in the five cities contending for the two expansion teams.

There was no promise of training junkets or other compensation for the Touchdowners, because there is no team or owner yet, Gutowski said. But he's made the potential owners aware of the several hundred club seats they sold.

Mark Sapperstein, a charter Touchdowner, said that's OK.

"I thought if I did my part, I could help bring football here," said Sapperstein, a Pikesville-based entrepreneur and devout sports fan who estimates spending $12,000 to $15,000 a year attending various sporting events.

He massaged the network of lawyers, accountants, vendors and other people he does business with and squeezed out about 150 club-seat leases.

Club seats are a special category of extra-wide, mezzanine-level seats with access to exclusive restaurants and lounges.

The seats carry annual fees of $700 to $1,700, depending upon location, and renters had to put down deposits equal to half the first year's rent.

"I'm not normally a forefront kind of guy. I just know I helped the effort," said Sapperstein, 34, whose scattered business activities include real estate development, communication towers and pagers.

Private networks of volunteer sales people are not new to sports, but more often are found in baseball clubs, which, because of their long schedules, have millions of tickets to sell, said Alan Friedman, publisher of Team Marketing Report, a newsletter for sports team executives.

The Kansas City Royals were the first major-league team to try the concept, and have been successful with their "Royal Lancers," he said.

Since then, the technique has been especially useful for minor-league teams, where the club is considered a municipal asset and survives by capturing expansive markets with small promotional budgets, he said.

"Why do people do it? I guess they like to be associated with sports teams," Friedman said of the volunteer salespeople.

The emergence of a group to support a football team that may not even materialize surprised local organizers.

"It was a great reflection on the enthusiasm for football in this market that unsolicited people would approach us about this," Gutowski said.

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