Football fans here are crowding out any CFL doubts

August 23, 1994|By BILL TANTON

Forty-one thousand people!

Actually, 41,155 -- attending a Canadian Football League game in August in Baltimore!

And with the game being shown live on Channel 2 for free!

That's what they had at Memorial Stadium for the CFLs' 31-24 loss to Toronto last Saturday night.

And this was no fluke, no one-shot thing.

"I can't see Baltimore embracing this CFL team," Steve Baker, a local basketball coach, was telling me yesterday.

I couldn't see it either -- until I did see it with my own eyes, twice in person at the stadium, and last week on TV.

The CFLs are averaging some 34,000 for home games. Baltimore people are embracing this team.

They are embracing the team even though they don't know the players' names. Hey -- the team itself doesn't even have a name.

CFLs? Sheesh!

"This," I told Bob Leffler yesterday, "has to be the greatest sports marketing job in history."

Leffler owns and operates the local ad agency that handles the CFL team. Four of his employees work on the account.

I like to talk to Leffler about this stuff. He's been around. He knows what's involved in selling sports.

He did marketing and promotions for the old Baltimore Colts. When they sneaked off during the night in 1984, Leffler began doing the same things for the Browns in his hometown of Cleveland.

He stayed here, of course, doing ads and PR and promotions for every

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Baltimore team but the Orioles -- the Blast, the Spirit, the Skipjacks, the Thunder, the Naval Academy, the Preakness. You name it, he's done it.

"A lot of people," Leffler said, "have worked on the CFLs' marketing -- David Julien, staff people, [owner] Jim Speros.

"The coach, Don Matthews, came up with the idea of putting 1,500 fans in a party zone and having the players come out and do high-fives with the fans before the game, as they do in Cleveland's Dawg Pound.

"The way the CFLs are drawing is remarkable when you consider this town's history in summer football.

"When the NFL Baltimore Colts played exhibition games here in August, it was rare to get more than 30,000 people at the stadium.

"The last exhibition game the Colts ever played here in 1982 drew 25,000 -- even with Fabian there as an extra attraction.

"That same year, we took our exhibition game with Atlanta to Phoenix. Even flying everybody all the way to Arizona, we made more money than we would have playing in Baltimore.

"The biggest crowd we ever had was 47,000 for a game with the Vikings in '77. Ernie Accorsi brought in Chuck Berry that night."

So what gives? In a league whose teams sometimes draw as little as 10,000, why is Baltimore easily No. 1 at the gate?

"The market was ready for the product after a 10-year hiatus," said

Leffler. "We have a product in a market vacancy."

That's adspeak, of course, but it's true.

After a decade of darkness, Baltimore was ready for more pro football. Even Canadian football.

Having been to games and studied the crowds more closely than I did the players, I believe this whole thing is fueled by two things:

1. Baltimore's hatred for the NFL after, first, being abandoned and then, years later, getting snubbed in the expansion derby.

2. Nostalgia for the old Colts era, which was such a glorious part of this city's sports history.

Jim Speros, although he grew up in the Washington suburbs, understands all that. He has made himself a local hero by battling the NFL for the right to use the name Colts. At every opportunity he drags out Johnny U. and Artie and Lenny for one more trip down memory lane, as he did at halftime Saturday night.

How long will these things sustain the franchise?

I have my doubts. I can see this dying down in a year and a half.

Baltimore is awarded the Grey Cup game for '97, and my reaction is: Will we even be in the league then?

Baltimore's CFL experience is encouraging other American cities to join. But if the league adds more Shreveports, Las Vegases and Sacramentos, it will help nothing.

"Baltimore," insists Leffler, "is a reborn market."

With 41,000 paying customers attending a game in August, it's hard to refute that.

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