Cooke understood future of professional football

September 16, 1997|By MICHAEL OLESKER

In Landover, the team still known as the Washington Redskins played the first game in its new football stadium Sunday before 1,846 empty seats.

In Baltimore, the team known as the Ravens suffered a television blackout when it failed to sell out Memorial Stadium a week ago. The week before that, which was Opening Day, it sold out only with last-second corporate help. In death, Jack Kent Cooke is starting to look like he understood something about the future.

For a long time, Cooke, the late owner of the Redskins, was the great obstacle to pro football returning to Baltimore. He claimed the market wouldn't support two teams so geographically close. He said this even though his Redskins had sold out every game since Lyndon Johnson's presidency. He said this even while gloating about 40,000 desperate, groveling people on a waiting list for Redskins tickets.

Everybody around here said Cooke was just being greedy. They said he wanted a monopoly on Baltimore television rights and exclusive dibs on all those deep-pocket people who could afford luxury boxes at the new stadium he was planning to build.

When that stadium opened Sunday, sure enough, there were only 78,270 seats filled in a stadium that holds 80,116. In football parlance, the empty seats were "premiums." In Jack Kent Cooke Stadium, premiums sell for prices that read like misprints: $1,395 to $2,495 for the eight-game season, which computes to $174 to $312 - per game, per ticket. This doesn't include a lease that has to be signed for each premium seat, the cheapest of which is $6,975. The most expensive: $12,475.

Even on a waiting list allegedly numbering 40,000, some sanity about ticket prices apparently prevails. In Baltimore, they're taking notice of such things. Yesterday, at the Ravens' front office, they were celebrating Sunday's 24-23 victory over the New York Giants while simultaneously wondering: Can we consistently sell out Memorial Stadium, and can we sell out our new stadium when we start getting more aggressive on ticket prices next year?

Similar questions are being asked around the National Football League. Since free agency, ticket prices have risen at nearly triple the rate of working people's wages. Owners want revenue-producing stadiums. When they don't get them, they move. They move to places like Baltimore, where a lot of people are still figuring out how they feel about the new guys, and the uncomfortable ethics of their arrival, and the new economics of football.

But the problems in football today relate not only to economic gaps, but generation gaps. The league has survey numbers showing football is losing young people to basketball and soccer. Soccer moms don't want their kids' teeth knocked out when they're still paying off the orthodontist. The kids don't want to be hidden behind an anonymous face mask, while taking forearms in the throat. They want to be like Michael Jordan, ad-libbing their way through space.

Also, they've discovered other ways to spend their time - even their TV time. The broadcast networks that embraced pro football, and helped create its huge popularity, have been yielding huge ground to cable for the past decade. Young people who once automatically turned on the game Sunday afternoons - they couldn't actually attend the games because tickets were too pricey and waiting lists too long - have long since discovered the joys of Nintendo and home video and MTV, the network of rock music videos.

The NFL knows this. The league recently hired a new marketing chief - a woman. Her name is Sara Levinson and, in her previous job, she helped run MTV. The NFL wants her to bring some of her previous job's sensibilities to the jock mentality of pro football. If that isn't the move of a league looking to change its image, what is?

Two days ago, at the precise hour the Ravens were beating the Giants in dramatic fashion on television, I drove past a schoolyard in my neighborhood. There were about 40 teen-age boys there. Some were playing football, some riding bikes, some playing basketball.

There was a time when such activities, during the Sunday hours of pro football on television, would have been considered heresy. But the Ravens are still trying to connect with their market - not only young people, but a generation of fans who suffered through the loss of the Colts and haven't quite swallowed their disgust at the acquisition of the former Cleveland Browns.

It wasn't specifically Baltimore that Jack Kent Cooke had to worry about. It was the NFL's own self-destructiveness, its ever-soaring ticket prices, and its owners ready to dump one devoted community for another. That was the future Cooke understood better than he let on.

Pub Date: 9/16/97

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