Stuck in a state of apathy Oilers: The NFL team has been given the cold shoulder from Memphis and, more surprisingly, has received a lukewarm reception in Nashville, where the club will move for good in 1999.

September 19, 1997|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

Pepper Rodgers is no stranger to the hard sell and Memphis, Tenn.

Once, as coach of the U.S. Football League's Showboats in the mid-1980s, he sold springtime football as a viable alternative to the NFL. A decade later in a similar role, he pitched Mad Dogs and the Canadian Football League to the discerning populace in western Tennessee.

Now, though, comes the most chilling and challenging sales job of Rodgers' football life.

He is trying to promote the Tennessee Oilers in the city the NFL spurned four years ago in expansion. He's trying to fill the Liberty Bowl's 62,380 seats against the knowledge this is strictly a short-term, albeit expensive, arrangement.

After two decades of lusting for an NFL team, it has come to this in Memphis: The city is baby-sitting the Oilers for two years until the team's new stadium in Nashville can be completed.

And this: On Sunday against the Ravens, in only their second home game in Tennessee, the Oilers are expecting -- well, hoping for -- a crowd of 20,000. That's if they get a brisk walk-up sale.

Make no mistake, Memphians are not thrilled with their role in the Texas two-step out of Houston.

"I don't think it's the Oilers that people are mad at," Rodgers said. "I think it's the NFL more than anything."

Rodgers, 65, defines his role with the Oilers as trouble-shooter in Memphis. So far, the Oilers have kept him busy with a scorching trail of brush fires.

Like the one this week, when Oilers defensive linemen Josh Evans and Anthony Cook were scheduled to attend a news conference in Memphis to promote Sunday's game. But Monday's practice ran long, and Evans and Cook missed their flight out of Nashville. Not surprisingly, news spots with Rodgers have gone past stale in Memphis.

"We have no presence here," he said of the Oilers. "It is so hard. They don't want to hear me in Memphis, they want to hear the players."

The Oilers' road to Tennessee is littered with oversights, poor calculations and terrible judgment. A sampling of their mistakes: When Oilers owner Bud Adams reached a two-year agreement to play regular-season games in the Liberty Bowl, he requested travel expenses to take the team back and forth from Nashville. ** Only he asked that those expenses be paid by the folks in Memphis. This affront was not well-received, and after a severe backlash, Adams withdrew his request.

Adams initially said he would change the Oilers' name and let Tennessee fans choose a new one. But then he changed his mind on changing the name, and that spawned more controversy.

In a college market that supported the USFL and CFL in varying degrees, the Oilers implemented the second-highest increase in average ticket price in the NFL. Their average ticket jumped 28.8 percent to $40.36, second only to the Washington Redskins' increase of 48.3 percent to $52.92, according to the Team Marketing Report, a Chicago newsletter.

Combine all that with the late start -- the Oilers weren't able to sell tickets until late June after their move -- and it's not hard to see there would be problems.

Yet, incredibly, the team had no inkling of the resentment of the NFL that awaited it in Memphis. This is a city that jumped through NFL hoops for two decades, playing host to 14 exhibition games during that time, in an attempt to get an expansion team, only to be rejected twice.

Don MacLachlan, the Oilers' senior vice president whose duties recently were expanded to include overseeing the Memphis operations, said no one from the league cautioned Adams that playing games in a city spurned during expansion might not be a good idea.

"No [they didn't]," MacLachlan said, "and I guess some of our marketing research shows a lot of avid football fans still in Memphis and surrounding communities. By the time we were able to hit the ground running and sell tickets, a lot of people had committed to college games and weren't able to commit to season tickets.

"We knew the situation we were in in regard to Memphis [not] getting an expansion team. I don't think there was any way we could gauge what was going to transpire, or what has transpired."

Even though the team has played well in splitting two overtime games, ticket sales have been nothing short of disastrous. A crowd of 30,171 turned out for the Oilers' Tennessee debut on Aug. 31, a rousing 24-21 victory against the Oakland Raiders. Projections were for crowds of between 50,000 and 55,000.

Only 10,000 season tickets have been sold, and only 4,000 of those went to Nashville fans willing to make the three-hour-plus drive to Memphis.

Additionally, only 27 of the Liberty Bowl's 40 skyboxes were sold. Clearly, skybox revenue was one of the big reasons Adams chose to play in Memphis rather than at Vanderbilt University in Nashville.

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