Namely, CFLs are better off without one

August 22, 1994|By JOHN EISENBERG

More than 41,000 fans came to Memorial Stadium for a CFL game Saturday night. Not that you could tell for most of the evening. The game was a dud. The home team was flat. With little to cheer about until a late rally that fell short, the fans were quiet.

No matter how sleepy they seemed, however, they faithfully snapped awake when offered a chance to play their favorite game. The name game.

Again and again throughout the evening, the public address announcer would bark: "First down, your Baltimore CFL . . . . "

Again and again, the fans would roar: "Colts!"

It is a gleeful habit that is four games old now and showing no signs of ceasing. The football fans coming to CFL games at Memorial Stadium don't seem to care that the use of the Colts name is tied up in court. They wear Colts T-shirts. They applaud the Colts band. They cheer the fan who moves from section to section leading raucous C-O-L-T-S cheers. They're Colt-a-holics.

All of which means that Jim Speros has a serious, serious problem on his hands.

Clearly, there is only one name that will suffice as the name of his team. Only one name the fans see as appropriate. Only one name that makes going to a CFL game in Baltimore something special.

And Speros can't use it. Not now. Not ever.

Oh, sure, he stood up the other day and promised to take his fight for the name to the Supreme Court. But his fight has become contrived. At this point, it is about as genuine as a pro wrestling match. As petty as it was for the NFL to contest the use of the name, the NFL had legal grounds to do so. If Speros appeals all the way to the Supreme Court, he will lose in the Supreme Court. You can make book on it.

Speros knows this, of course. Why does he keep fighting? Because he backed himself into a corner by promising to keep fighting. Because having a nameless team, basically a 37-headed martyr, is terrific box office.

And because fighting postpones the day when Speros must pick a new name.

Such a day is coming. Speros can't avoid it. But he certainly can dread it. And you had better believe he does.

With a different name, a regular name such as the Bombers or Rhinos, his team is just a team.

With a different name, his team doesn't symbolize the city's anger, provide a romantic link to the past or serve as a vehicle for releasing years of frustration. With a different name, his team doesn't symbolize anything -- and symbolism is the foundation of the team's popularity.

With a different name, Speros' team runs the risk of becoming an allegory to the Samson fable. Samson lost his strength when his hair was cut off. Speros' team could lose the essence of its attraction if its symbolism is taken away. Make that when its symbolism is taken away.

It's a thorny problem. But there is a way out. One solution to this mess.

When the time comes to pick a new name, just don't.

That's right, leave things exactly the way they are. The team can't call itself the Colts, but the fans can. The symbolism lives. The symbolism continues to sell. Going to a game continues to offer fans a chance to thumb their noses at Bob Irsay and Paul Tagliabue, obviously a popular public service.

Forget Bombers, Ravens and phony horse derivatives such as Stallions. Let the press call the team the CFLs or whatever. The team can call itself the Baltimore Football Club, as the CFL office already does in press releases. If the logo has to be changed slightly to satisfy the NFL legal weenies, so be it. If not, just keep the logo as is. Keep everything as is. It's already working. Why change it?

Convention is the only reason to feel compelled to come up with a new name. Every pro team in North America has a name. But who cares? European soccer teams don't have names. They don't suffer. This is a perfect situation for an exception. Every sports fan in North America knows what happened to the Colts, why the new team in town doesn't have a name. It's a natural angle to sell. Everyone loves an underdog. A team of marketing slicks could do wonders.

If Speros weren't being disingenuous with his public (trying to insist he isn't trading on the Colts name, then trotting out old Colts every three minutes to hype his gate), he would drop his doomed fight today and replace the name with . . . nothing. The Baltimore FC. Call 'em what you want. (And we know what you want.)

If CFL commissioner Larry Smith doesn't like it (commissioners want names to sell), ask him to check the attendance figures.

If Speros is worried about damaging his credibility by breaking his pledge to fight on, he can just explain that the money he'd earmarked for lawyers would go toward paying for an extra free agent. The fans would accept that. They'd be thrilled. They'd get the name they want, even if Speros can't use it. They'd get to keep their C-O-L-T-S cheer. They'd get their fun. The NFL can't sue fans for trademark infringement.

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