They don't know it, but tens of thousands of Ravens fans are having their game-day futures into the next century decided in a cluttered series of cubicles at the team's downtown offices.
Workers there have begun the painstaking process of assigning seats at the new stadium to the people who ordered them over the past two years.
There are computers and special software to help, but meshing the labyrinth of seating "zones" with orders, keeping groups of friends together, and accommodating physical disabilities and idiosyncratic preferences, is a job done largely by hand.
It will take months.
"There is no fail-safe way of doing it, unless you invite everyone out there one at a time. From a time perspective, you can't do that," said Roy Sommerhof, Ravens director of ticket operations.
For one thing, the stadium keeps changing.
Architects continually update what they believe will be the seating layout, down to the specific number of 20- and 19-inch-wide seats (the short ones are thrown in sometimes to make a row fit). But if one of the massive, concrete seating bowl sections comes in a few inches long or short, or if an expansion joint expands more than anticipated, it could add or subtract a seat or two.
"Sometimes what architects and engineers tell you on paper and what gets built are two different things," Sommerhof said. "You can get plus or minus 1 percent or 2 percent in each section."
The precise number of seats won't be known until they are bolted down and team officials can go out and count all 68,800-plus one-by-one.
In the meantime, the downtown employees are making their best guess and fitting in fans according to four levels of priority, seven price levels and eight zones. Seats at the new stadium will cost $200 to $600 a season, and most will require a one-time season-ticket surcharge, called a permanent seat license, of $250 to $3,000 (not including skybox and club seats).
The employees have started in a small, upper-deck corner, to get a feel for the process. First step: Baker Koppelman, assistant director of ticket operations, goes over an architectural blueprint with a yellow marker and blocks out seats likely to have undesirable views, such as the rows immediately behind railings. These will be set aside for single-game sales or filled in for the last season-ticket orders.
Then he turns to a computer that has reduced each seat to a tiny "O" on a diagram of a section. Each O becomes an X on the computer screen as a fan is assigned a seat. Fed into the computer are the individual accounts, their preferences for seats, and other pertinent data.
Fans are then sorted according to priority: first are the diehards who put down money for club seats as part of the city's 1993 drive to land an expansion franchise, and left the money on account but opted not to get a club seat.
Next are the fans who put down money in 1993 but requested a refund when the city failed to win a team. Third are the people who bought season tickets in 1996 and fourth are the new buyers.
Each buyer was asked to specify an area in the stadium, called a zone, where he wanted to sit. For each zone, the computer will "randomize" the accounts within each priority level (except for new buyers, who will be prioritized according to date of purchase). Koppelman and his assistants then take them in order, by hand, and fill them in on the computer, making broad assumptions about seating desirability.
Within a zone, for example, it's assumed that the better seats start at the lowest row nearest midfield and go up vertically, one behind the other, up to a certain point. Then, common sense suggests, preferences would move back down a few rows, and out from the midsection.
"If you are not a detail person, you should not be in this business," Koppelman said.
About 2,000 ticket buyers wrote in special requests, such as a seat on an aisle, or one on the sunny side, or the Ravens' side, of the stadium. The team tries to accommodate as many of these as it can, although restrictions may have the effect of pushing a fan's seats higher in the stadium.
Groups of fans are bunched together and fitted into the matrix of O's on the computer screen. Care is taken to keep aisles from dividing groups. Four or fewer tickets in a single account are usually assigned as four in a row. Groups of six or more are generally seated one behind the other in rows of three each.
An assignment may change throughout the process as blocs of people are fit into the puzzle. The team employees refer frequently to the stadium blueprints to be sure it matches the computer.
After the first priority customers are slotted into their seats, the team moves on to the second, third and fourth priority.