Modell could show a huge profit in goodwill by dropping PSLs

March 24, 1996|By John Steadman

Playing the public relations game for all it's worth is a working skill Art Modell brought with him. It's a technique he has not lost while in the throes of transferring his Cleveland Browns to the crab flats of Chesapeake Bay, otherwise known as dear old Baltimore, the place Lord Calvert originally franchised. That's the landowner, not the whiskey.

Modell, the master orator and spellbinder, offers eloquence and elegance before an audience. In the board room, there's an extraordinary charm exhibited. Personable and persuasive. All of that. Even more.

Last week at the Ed Block Courage Awards Banquet, he drew cheers by merely being present, the grand liberator of Baltimore's football followers. Modell was in the spotlight with Art Donovan; Dick Szymanski, who stole the show; John Unitas; Lenny Moore, and Tom Matte. Don't be surprised if Modell doesn't hire some of the former Colts to form an advisory board or to represent the team in public relations capacities to augment his own PR persona.

He'll usually give the public what it wants. This is his forte. He has the leading public relations director, the best money can buy, in the NFL and maybe its highest-paid in Kevin Byrne, an all-pro. If Modell could find a way to get Weeb Ewbank involved as an honorary coach on the sidelines, he'd do it in the blink of an eye.

Be remindful that Modell comes from an advertising background. Bright, handsome, articulate. When the astonishing deal he got from the state of Maryland induced him to leave Cleveland, he took a personal battering for rejecting a city that had been good to him. He travels with bodyguards. They were even with him for his Baltimore banquet debut.

It was astonishing that a man so gifted in PR would not have found a way to minimize the fury that became a national debacle. Oh, well, even Otto Graham threw an interception once every 10 years and Lou Groza once kicked the ground in practice.

The financial arrangement that brought Modell to Baltimore is without precedent here. For at least the next 30 years, the team will have a rent-free stadium that will cost upward of $200 million to build to his personal specifications, plus he gets the concession and parking revenue, along with half the income that all other events apart from football generate.

But if he wants to score the most important public relations stroke of his career, he should call off the ill-advised plan to sell permanent seat licenses, which is coercion and also a form of extortion. For the next five years, conservatively speaking, the // team hardly needs to win a game to draw capacity crowds and make enormous profits.

During 1996 and 1997, his team will be playing at Memorial Stadium, where at least $2 million will be spent to rehabilitate a 43-year-old facility. It might cost twice that much to make it reasonably presentable to accommodate cash customers.

Still, the crowds will come. Sellout after sellout. Then, after two introductory years, the club will move downtown to the new stadium and, for three seasons, at the minimum, the impetus to see the team in its lavish surroundings will be overwhelming. So it's a box-office winner the next five years regardless of the record. Baltimore just wants to be back in the NFL, another example of how absence makes the heart grow fonder . . . at any price.

Projections from financial wizards suggest Modell's profit will reach between $30 million and $40 million per year. So why the PSL, charging fans from $250 to $4,000 before granting them the right to buy a ticket? No other business can do it. Modell has been saying the fans misunderstand the PSL concept.

That's debatable. The public we meet knows full well what it's going to be subjected to with PSLs. It realizes pro football is taking advantage of its affections and charging a fee for the privilege of buying a ticket. Modell said it's no different from purchasing a condominium. Not the kind we've visited.

It also, in some ways, is similar to buying membership in a country club, except you get your initiation fee back if transferred out of town or resign for any other reason. Bringing in advisers, so-called experts, to quarterback the sale of PSLs is at least a tacit admission that the idea is one that needs slick programming to make it successful.

Why else would Max Muhleman, who owns a Charlotte, N.C., marketing agency, be directing such an unsavory caper? No wonder he looked as if he had seen a ghost three years ago after a reporter at commissioner Paul Tagliabue's news conference asked how Charlotte could use a surcharge that's what we then called it to help build a stadium that would work against Baltimore in the expansion effort?

Charlotte came up short in paying for a stadium; Baltimore was already funded with public money. Meanwhile, in Oakland, Calif., where Muhleman's representatives also have been at work, the PSL supply has hardly been exhausted.

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