The Ravens, facing a sharp drop in season-ticket sales from last season, have eliminated thousands of undesirable seats at Memorial Stadium and dropped a controversial requirement that fans wanting tickets at the old ballpark first buy a seat license for the stadium under construction downtown.
The club says it has just under 46,000 season tickets sold for the coming season, down 8,000 -- or 15 percent -- from last year, but is hopeful the numbers will grow before play resumes in August.
As part of a revved-up marketing campaign, the club has invited fans to Memorial Stadium tonight to meet players and to try out available seats, which will be marked with orange tags. The Ravens also have written to season-ticket holders and offered free parking passes and other goodies for recruiting new buyers.
The capacity of Memorial Stadium has been cut from about 64,000 to 62,000 by removing from sale obstructed-view seats behind pillars or in other undesirable locations that drew complaints from fans. Some of those seats may become available again for high-demand games.
The club says it is happy with its reception in the city and the measures are merely an attempt to prolong the 10-for-10 sellout string of last season, its first in Baltimore.
Football-starved fans gobbled up 51,000 season tickets within the first two weeks they were offered for sale last year. The team peaked at 54,000 season tickets held by 18,000 customers. Attendance last year averaged 59,851.
Since last season -- with a disappointing 4-12 finish -- cancellations have brought the number to below 46,000, said Ravens spokesman Kevin Byrne.
"I think we anticipated some falloff, but we don't have a good sense of the market, so we weren't sure what to expect," Byrne said.
Where did all the fans go?
"We found some people just indicated they didn't have the money. Others saw that they could buy single games, and others said they were waiting for the new stadium," Byrne said.
Sports and stadium consultant Michael Megna, with Megna Valuations in Milwaukee, said a 15 percent drop in season tickets "seems a little high."
"You expect reality to set in after the hysteria of a new team arriving. But you should have at least a three-year holiday," Megna said.
The trick for the club is to attract a sufficient number of fans to get through next year without compromising its aggressive pricing schedule or appearing desperate. Next year, when the new stadium opens, interest should revive, he said.
"That's an automatic. The worst team in any sport has a great year in a new stadium," he said.
Until now, the Ravens reserved season tickets at Memorial Stadium for fans willing to make down payments on permanent seat licenses at the new stadium. Seat licenses sell for a one-time fee of $250 to $3,000 and will be required before someone can buy a season ticket.
But the team has relaxed those rules, meaning fans can buy tickets for the 1997 season without making a commitment for next year. And buying season tickets for this year will put the fans first in line of priority to buy the 15,000 seat licenses still available -- out of a total of 61,000 -- at the new stadium.
"We want to concentrate on the final season at Memorial Stadium," Byrne said. "I think it is a recognition that Memorial Stadium is a harder place to sell tickets."
He said the team would consider refund requests for seat license purchasers who, due to the change in requirements, decide they would rather get a ticket for this season and give up their priority for the new stadium. Questions can be directed to the team at 410-261-7283.
One former customer, Tim Parker, said he enjoyed attending games last year but was turned off by the high cost and what he perceived as excessive demands by the team -- such as the seat licenses. He gave up his seats.
"I don't belong to a country club and don't believe in paying country club dues to watch eight athletic events and two dress rehearsals," Parker said.
He said he also was angry that he has has been waiting for months, despite several calls and letters, to receive a promised refund of his seat license deposits. "It's been like pulling teeth," he said.
Another fan, Eric Allen, bought a ticket and seat license for the first time this year and said he doesn't mind the high prices.
"Everybody should be grateful. We got what we wanted after a lot of hard work, and people should be willing to put their money up," Allen said. "I love football."
Byrne said the team is pleased with the pace of the seat license sales, and doesn't expect any change in those requirements for the new stadium. The team plans to hold out about 6,000 seats for single-game sales.
The Ravens have assigned licenses to 61,000 seats at the new stadium. The only unsold seats are in the end-zone and goal-line areas, which carry the least-expensive licenses, $500 to $750. All 7,800 club seats and about 82 of the 100 sky boxes have been leased, Byrne said.