Speros' Grey Skies Turn Cloudy

June 01, 1995|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,Sun Staff Writer

At face value, almost everything about Baltimore's first season in the Canadian Football League looked magical. The crowds, the trip to the Grey Cup, the link to the old-time Colts -- they all held a dream-like quality last year.

But not everything was the way it appeared.

Beyond the football revival, there were problems.

Attendance, for one, was not what it was reported to be. Not paid attendance, anyway.

The team boasted a league-leading average of 36,377, but as many as 10,500 fans a game got into Memorial Stadium without buying a ticket. Some 7,500 of them came through corporate trades. Another 3,000 got in through an extensive giveaway plan that Jim Speros, the team's general partner and president, implemented to market the game.

There were financial problems. Speros said the team lost $1.1 million last season -- despite revenues of $7.9 million. If not for the cost of his failed attempt to gain use of the Colts name from the NFL and the money spent on the face-lift he gave the stadium, he would have broken even, Speros said.

There was other fiscal fallout. Two local companies sued Speros for non-payment of bills. Several other small businesses discovered he was, at best, slow to pay their bills.

Even though Speros said he did not have cash-flow problems, those developments have raised doubts about the future of the team -- and the league -- in Baltimore.

As the Baltimore Football Club prepares for its second season, Speros still is wrestling with reviving the excitement generated a year ago.

"The real success story is going to be whether I can keep it going," said Speros, a 35-year-old entrepreneur from Potomac, Md., whose previous business ventures were in real estate and restaurants. "Anybody can be a flash in the pan.

"Year two in any business, [there's a] sophomore slump, call it whatever you want. It's your toughest year because people have now seen the product. Some of the glitter has worn off a little bit. Now, you're talking about selling the real package, the real product. I've got my hands full marketing right now. This has not been an easy off-season."

In his first year, Speros was a marketing marvel. Fighting the NFL for the Colts name, he lost in court but won big in fan support and national exposure. Ten years after the Colts abandoned Baltimore, he brought back dozens of former heroes to Memorial Stadium in a nostalgia blitz.

Not everyone liked the attempt to trade on the legacy of the Colts.

"My position is, I don't think he should use the alumni to further his cause," said John Unitas Jr., who handles the marketing of his Hall of Fame quarterback father. "I don't blame him for doing it. It's a shrewd marketing ploy. But I told him, 'I'm not putting my father in position to do things for you to make you a profit.' It's great he's honoring all these guys, but he shouldn't keep doing it."

Speros denied he is using the old players to pad gate receipts. He said he will donate $3 from each ticket for the June 17 alumni game to local charities.

"I feel these guys should be recognized," Speros said of the former Colts. "And I've got the proper format. If it puts more people in the stadium, so be it. To me, it's value added for my fans."

The team's first-year phenomenon was aided by a players strike that closed down the baseball season in late summer, leaving the CFL the only game in town.

Few people knew how many tickets were passed out in the name of corporate trade or charity, though. Speros said the giveaways -- not counting corporate deals -- ranged between 800 and 3,000 tickets a game.

"There's no question that we gave away, in some cases, as many as 3,000 tickets to [charities]," Speros said. "Those tickets were never given to the same people twice. I wanted to give them to people to see the product. I have no problem with that. This year, I'll do it a little differently. This year, I'll probably give between 200 and 800 tickets a game."

In the corporate trade-offs, as many as 7,500 tickets a game were given to companies in return for goods and services such as paint, office furniture and equipment and cars for team personnel.

In a further attempt to heighten awareness, Speros televised home games, a practice he will not follow in 1995. The club's attendance this season figures to be more representative of the fan base.

At this point, Speros has reason to be concerned. By his count, the renewal rate of season-ticket holders is 73 percent. And though only 6 percent have said they won't be back, it appears a significant segment of last year's fans either will opt for single-game tickets or pass altogether on the concept of three-down football.

An off-season of instability with U.S. expansion teams did little to improve Speros' position at home. The league vacated Sacramento, Calif., for San Antonio, and ultimately suspended the Las Vegas Posse franchise after a brutal round of negotiations failed to relocate the team in Jackson, Miss.

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