Ravens' camp isn't going to be like the old days

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July 21, 1996|By MIKE BURNS

WELL, IT'S NOT the same excitement as the U.S. Olympic cycling team trials, is it? Oops. Did that hit a few raw nerves over on Center Street?

Fortunately, Carroll County has another chance to turn big-time sports into money-making, image-building economic development with the arrival of the 130-man Baltimore Ravens contingent for four weeks of summer football training camp.

Predictions are that the month could be worth from $3 million to $5 million for the local economy. But that's based on the experience of established teams with established local fandoms and established training camp sites.

The tourism projections are also based on well-organized promotion campaigns, which take time to build up, to iron out the wrinkles, to learn what works.

In this summer of 1996, however, it's a brand new ball game for Carroll, with no established tradition. There's also no natural constituency for the team, except perhaps for the old Colts fans who doggedly believe in reincarnation.

The Baltimore Ravens are a new team, with old baggage. They have a new city, a new name and uniform, a new summer camp. The franchise left its former, bitter fans behind, and none of them can be expected to make the trek to Western Maryland College to scope out this season's team.

The Ravens, nee Browns, are also an average assortment of players, with no household names on the roster. That's one reason why owner Art Modell departed the banks of the Cuyahoga for a fresh start, for greener pastures and greener customers.

That lack of star power won't help to fill practice field bleachers. But the newcomer strategy has worked to sell Ravens game tickets; 54,000 season ticket-holders can't be wrong. Lots of those folks are hungry for NFL football of any caliber; others see it as a status thing or a long-term investment. They're not Browns fans, or even Ravens fans, yet. They'll be at Memorial Stadium for the games, but won't necessarily be drawn to the summer camp in large numbers.

In this first week, the fans have been straggling into practice. The big crowds won't show until later. Coming weeks, with more interesting drills, will be a better test of the Ravens' drawing power.

This ain't 1971

Local attempts to capitalize on the team's arrival were initially delayed and wrapped in misconceptions. Time-warped memories of what the Colts did here a quarter-century ago -- yes, they left Carroll for the last time in 1971 -- encouraged false expectations.

Hey, kids, let's have a parade! How about a celebrity player golf tournament? Those were some of the welcoming committee's plans that didn't make the first cut with Ravens officials. Town boosters dreamed about the players hanging out and schmoozing in local restaurants after practices.

But that's not the NFL today, with the intense pressures and high financial stakes involved in practice season. There's not enough time for extra activities. Even the after-practice autograph sessions are carefully scheduled and controlled by the team.

It's not an unreasonable attitude, either. Think about the strain of hard physical punishment morning and afternoon in the hot, humid Maryland summer. Of studying thick playbooks and pushing your limits to make the team because someone else is working to get your job.

The team's perspective is much the same: a limited time for camp that must produce maximum results. High salaries and union agreements and potential liabilities add to the pressures. This is not summer camp as you ever experienced it.

So far, the community is still uncertain what to do to handle the new summertime attraction. It's willing and friendly and enthusiastic, but unsure what will happen.

There are a lot of posters in the stores along Main Street, and helpful traffic signs along highways that direct motorists to camp parking. A shuttle bus system is in place. Restaurants are applying the team name to menu items (for the ravenous eater?) and the tourist office has a visitors booth at the college. "Official team merchandise" is in ample supply.

Western Maryland College has done a fine job of preparing, ably adapting to team demands; Ravens staff did much of the work themselves. The school was able to add needed campus parking and install irrigation systems on three fields, with some cost-sharing from the team. Nearby off-campus parking for spectators was quickly secured.

So the infrastructure is in place. The Ravens should be pleased with the facilities for this initial camp. If the arrangements and the price are right, the team can be expected to return here in future years. (The Washington Redskins agreed to a 10-year contract with Frostburg State University after an encouraging first-year camp there.)

As for specific economic benefits, there is a cautious optimism. "We hope to break even," says Ethan Seidel, WMC's finance vice president. Ice vendor Tony Dougherty of Taneytown admits that the summer camp's order isn't a big one, "but just to say we have the Ravens for customers is great."

Mike Burns is The Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

Pub Date: 7/21/96

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