Somehow, Grey Cup mania slips the masses

November 19, 1994|By JOHN EISENBERG

A radio talk show in Toronto had me on last week to talk about the CFLs' drive for the Grey Cup. First question: "So, are people going crazy?" My answer: Um, well, not really. Maybe that was wrong, but I don't think so.

Any such conclusion about fan support is going to be based on perception and anecdotal evidence, of course, there being little hard data to employ other than attendance figures, which can be flimsy. But here are the signs that tell you that, as much of a kick as the CFLs have been, and as well as they have drawn at Memorial Stadium, Grey Cup mania hasn't quite overtaken our fair burg:

* Our mayor hasn't made one of those knuckleheaded, publicity-hunting bets with the mayor of Winnipeg in advance of tomorrow's division title game. (Memo to Mayor Schmoke: If you do decide to do this, offer to give their guy a portable heater for his office.)

* Donald Igwebuike can still shop at the mall without being surrounded by hundreds of autograph-seeking get-a-lifers chanting "Igg-gy, Igg-gy."

* Most people around here still think a Grey Cup is either a) a tea bag, or b) something you buy at an earthenware outlet store.

* The CFLs are barely registering a blip on the talk shows this week. The Orioles' "new" ticket prices have pretty much blown them off the air. (Shockingly, fans are slightly upset at discovering that they're going to be footing the bill for the strike.

Oh, and there are these other two items, also:

* Average attendance at CFLs games declined in the second half of the season. (From 38,000 for the first five games to 36,000 for the second five.)

* CFLs games generate virtually no business at local sports bars. Bill Grauel, the co-owner of Balls, reports that 15 or 20 people show up to watch a CFLs game, as opposed to 300 or 400 on an average NFL Sunday.

Now, don't misunderstand the point here. The CFLs are a huge success by any reckoning. At the gate. On the field. They have a core following of 30,000-plus fans, and even if it's the same folks showing up every week, that's a lot of folks. And even the average local sports fan who doesn't go to the games knows that Pringle and Ham is a backfield and not a law firm, which is a victory.

But there is a difference between fans following a team and getting into it in the classic, slobbering, single-minded way that people do, and not that many locals are into the CFLs in such a fashion.

I will begin to believe otherwise when I overhear my first office-cooler debate on the merits of giving up the rouge in lieu of improving field position. Or when I hear a kid saying he wants to be the next Neal Fort when he grows up.

Or when the cheers that follow a CFLs touchdown at Memorial Stadium finally become louder than the wicked "Colts" cheer, which is still the loudest and has nothing to do with whether the team wins or loses.

The truth is that it's impossible for that many fans around here to get too worked up when they didn't even know the names of the other teams in the league a few months ago. And when they still probably can't name more than a dozen players on the home team.

The truth is that the CFLs probably can't get much more popular than they are right now, considering that they're playing, yes, minor-league pro football. The product is livelier than the NFL's, the athletes and coaches deserve your respect and the league itself has a long and fine history, but, let's face it, NFL players are bigger, stronger, faster and better, and that's what most people want, no matter how angry this city is about the NFL.

If this were an NFL expansion team making a run at a conference title, we'd have all the trappings of lunatic fandom at work around town. Instead, we've got Grauel, a sports bar owner, saying, "Maybe things will be a little better this Sunday, it being a playoff game and all."

The CFLs started out as a vehicle for us to use in thumbing our noses at the NFL, and they've had a lot of breaks that have helped them succeed beyond anyone's wildest dreams: a baseball strike, a successful team and a no-name crisis that galvanized support. They will probably beat the Redskins-Cowboys game in the television ratings tomorrow. And the city might actually get a little excited if they win and advance to the Grey Cup. But not nearly as excited as it would get if the Tampa Bay Buccaneers announced tomorrow that they were moving to Camden Yards.

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