There's not crowd of contenders for top CFL franchise

July 19, 1994|By BILL TANTON

No wonder the Canadian Football League wants Baltimore to be its model franchise.

First-year Baltimore already is the top drawing team in the league. By far.

The crowd at Memorial Stadium Saturday night for the 42-16 loss to Calgary was 39,247.

"How could we not be pleased with Baltimore?" says Jim Neish, CFL communications coordinator. "We're pleased not only with the crowd but with the way the spectators had fun."

Look at the other CFL crowds last weekend:

* Winnipeg: 21,686 for a 50-35 win over Edmonton.

* Shreveport: 20,624 for a 35-34 loss to Toronto.

* Hamilton lost at home, 25-22, to Sacramento before 19,291.

* At Ottawa: 17,491 for the 55-18 loss to British Columbia.

* The CFL's smallest turnout -- 12,213 -- was at Las Vegas, which defeated Saskatchewan, 32-22, in overtime.

Baltimore is in a class by itself, judging by one exhibition, which drew 28,798, plus one league game.

Of course the CFL wants to model its other franchises after Baltimore. But there's no way Saskatchewan or Hamilton or Ottawa can become another Baltimore.

There's no way the other American CFL cities -- Shreveport, Las Vegas and Sacramento -- will become like Baltimore. No way in this world.

Baltimore's situation is unique.

None of these other CFL cities can draw upon the things that motivated nearly 40,000 people to go to Memorial Stadium on a hot July night to watch a bunch of football players they'd never heard of (Doug Flutie is the one notable exception).

These other cities can't feed off the frustration Baltimore has lived with since the loss of the Colts 10 1/2 years ago.

When the PA announcer in Winnipeg says, "First-and-10 for your Winnipeg . . .," how many spectators do you think are going to shout the team's nickname, "Blue Bombers"?

Answer: None.

Answer in Baltimore: Most of them shout, "Colts!"

That's one of the greatest pleasures of the crowds at the stadium. For them it is a release of emotions that have had no satisfying outlet for a decade.

COLTS!

The forbidden name. The beloved name. Shout it again. Let Big Wheel and Wild Bill lead the cheer from the upper deck.

C-O-L-T-S! Colts!

How many other cities have a band that hung in there for 10 years while there was no team? How many CFL bands can bring a tear to a spectator's eye?

In how many other CFL cities are we likely to see a lookalike dummy of National Football League commissioner Paul Tagliabue dragged throughout the stadium to the amusement of the spectators? None, of course.

But the people here did it Saturday night. That was part of the fun the man from the CFL office was talking about.

Baltimore football fans hate Tagliabue and they hate Bob Irsay and their feeling for the whole NFL is not much warmer.

Jim Speros, the 35-year-old owner of the local CFL team, is not from Baltimore. He's from Potomac, Md., a Washington suburb.

But Speros understands the mood of the people here. Speaking at J. Patrick's the other day, the astute Speros said:

"This football team has been a crusade for me for six months. I was not going to start a venture if it was not going to be successful. I felt the timing was right after 10 years."

The timing was perfect.

No, they'll not be marketing their teams this way in Edmonton or Ottawa or Shreveport. No way.

Only in Baltimore can the game be sold like this. That's why only in Baltimore were there nearly 40,000 spectators for a CFL game last weekend.

A social psychologist could do his Ph.D. thesis on the pro-CFL, anti-NFL phenomenon in Baltimore. Doctorates have been earned on

far less interesting subjects.

At the game last weekend, crowd behavior fascinated me. From my seat in lower section 41, behind the end zone in the enclosed end of the stadium, there was more to watch than football.

That appeared to be the mood of the fans, too. They certainly were not paying attention to the game. They seemed to be making no particular effort to learn the players.

What they did do was cheer, drink beer, eat popcorn and revel in the atmosphere.

If a pop quiz had been given the spectators as they exited the stadium, asking them to name two Calgary players besides Flutie, nearly all of them would have failed.

Those fans were there to vent their spleens, to blast the NFL and holler "Colts!" and wallow in nostalgia.

In other words, they were there to have fun -- and they had it.

The whole thing was more of a civic rally than a crowd attending a football game.

As the recorded techno-music blared during the game, I asked the man sitting behind me how he liked the CFL.

"It's all right," he said. "It reminds me of the soccer game downtown."

He was referring to the Blast/Spirit, with their loud music during the action and a PA announcer trying to work the crowd into a fever.

When Shreveport plays here Saturday night, my guess is there'll not be any 40,000 people in the stands. Maybe 25,000. Which still would be more than anyone else drew last week.

There's no Doug Flutie coming in this time. Some of the curious spectators from last week will pass this time.

CFL action is nothing if not crowd-pleasing. The league is off to a great start here.

But the Baltimore team will have to win some games. The real test will come after some of the newness wears off.

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