Life of a Salesman Football: Ravens owner Art Modell has gone from NFL insider to renegade. Now he's starting over in Baltimore, using his gift for gab to sell everything from season tickets to himself.

April 19, 1997|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,SUN STAFF

It's a little before 9 in the morning in a windowless room at the Doubletree Guest Suites hotel. Art Modell steps up to the faux-wood podium. He tugs the microphone down and in, just as he has a thousand times before.

Today he's speaking to an association of business people near the airport, the BWI Business Partnership. But it could just as well be the Kiwanis Club, the Rotarians or the Association of Retired Urologists.

A seasoned speaker, Modell opens with a joke. His secretary, you see, mistakenly put this appearance on his schedule months ago for 8 p.m., rather than 8 a.m. He learned of the error just in time to make it from his suburban home north of the city all the way to this sprawling office park near the airport.

"I left last Tuesday to get here on time," says the Baltimore Ravens owner. Not a knee-slapper, but it gets the crowd's attention. His timing is impeccable, his volume rising and pace quickening at the punch line, then trailing off to let the laughter subside.

This is Art Modell in his natural habitat, doing what he does best: selling the team, selling himself. Others in his organization have embraced the focus groups and the other weaponry of modern mass marketing. But hand-to-hand selling still runs in Modell's blood, and he's not going to stop now. As he likes to say, you never stop selling.

Of course, selling has taken on a whole new importance for Modell, who is starting fresh after more than three decades in the NFL. New town. New team. New fans. He's got plenty to hustle: season tickets, seat licenses, sponsorships, skyboxes, club seats. Himself.

He mastered sports in the age when tickets were sold game by game, through endless appearances just like this. Those were ++ the days when players joined teams for a handshake and stayed until their knees gave out. The days before mundane events, like this weekend's NFL draft, became live TV specials. Before the Super Bowl, before the Bud Bowl, before Jerry Jones, Paul Tagliabue and Leigh Steinberg.

Before most of his audience at the Doubletree was born.

Art Modell is a master of the glib aside, the spontaneous zinger, the self-deprecating quip. At appearances like this one, he speaks without notes, reeling off the tales from the old sports fronts like an aging spy recounting stories of the Cold War. His inflection betrays just a hint of his distant Brooklyn past.

A bona fide sports icon, Modell was there for every step of the National Football League's climb to sports dominance. He was Mr. Inside when the deals were being struck and history was being made. He served on the committees that combined the NFL with the rival American Football League, that conceived the Super Bowl, that rejected the Oakland Raiders' move to Los Angeles, that bestowed the league's coveted expansion franchises.

And, of course, he brought football back to Baltimore. Which is what has brought him here, to schmooze, to entertain, to do the kind of personal salesmanship only Art Modell can do.

He is asked: Will instant replay ever come back? Not likely, he says. "Fourteen of my suits have gone out of style since we had instant replay."

And oh, by the way. There are eight or nine skyboxes still available at his new stadium, under construction at Camden Yards, he notes. Each has 24 seats, the widest and most spacious in all of the NFL. If anybody is interested

He slips in the sales pitch with such impish charm that it elicits a chuckle from the audience.

The crowd is receptive. It has been warmed to a fuzzy glow by a flattering introduction from the group's program chairman. The 71-year-old owner of the Ravens, he pointed out, has a biography worthy of a Horatio Alger novel.

Indeed. A New Yorker by birth, he dropped out of high school when his father died to help his mother and two sisters get by. He scraped barnacles from hulls in the New York harbor, then went off to the Army when war flared in Europe. A good baseball player -- he was a catcher -- he landed a plum stateside billet teaching physical education to the recruits.

He was a mere 35, a Madison Avenue ad man who had dabbled in TV production, when he got a tip from a friend that the Cleveland Browns were for sale. He had used his G.I. benefits to take a course on television. He had a hunch that the business, then dependent on black and white sets with tiny screens and rabbit ears that needed constant fiddling, might someday amount to something.

He was right.

He was also a sports fanatic. He had grown up with the Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers (both of them: the Dodgers of the National League and the All-America Football Conference team). The World Series. Vin Scully on the radio. He was in the stands at Yankee Stadium, another broken-hearted Giants season ticket holder, when his team fell to Baltimore and Unitas for the '58 championship.

He was pretty sure the NFL, too, might someday amount to something. Possibly in combination with television.

Right again.

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