Philly stands out in a crowd Attendance: Its neighbor to the north shows Baltimore a thing or two about backing minor-league sports in a major-league city.

May 05, 1998|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

PHILADELPHIA -- It is a typical weekend on South Broad Street, and Philadelphia's sporting heart is showing.

Four of the city's eight professional teams are playing within two blocks of each other, and together they draw 75,617 fans into the complex that includes the CoreStates Center, the CoreStates Spectrum and Veterans Stadium. A full one-third of those fans came not to see the Phillies, Flyers, 76ers or Eagles, but the American Hockey League Phantoms and the National Lacrosse League Wings.

Those same Wings were in Baltimore on April 28, playing the Thunder in the NLL finals. The game drew 3,137.

What does Philadelphia have that Baltimore doesn't?

Fans who come out for non-mainstream sports, for one thing.

The AHL Phantoms averaged 11,809 this season, the NLL Wings 13,500 and the Kixx of the National Professional Soccer League 9,000.

Each of those totals led its respective league, and the Phantoms' numbers broke the AHL record that dated to the 1971-72 Boston Braves.

Anet Baghdasarian is a native Philadelphian. She worked as an assistant box office manager for the 76ers for eight years before becoming director of ticket operations for Philadelphia's newest team, the Rage of the American Basketball League. Through the years, she has developed a definite opinion on why Philadelphians support sports on all levels.

"It's a physical thing," she said. "It's a town of laborers who work hard all week, and when it's time to relax, they go to sports events and they support teams as long as the team works hard."

In Baltimore, six versions of minor-league hockey have come and gone because of a lack of support. In Baltimore, the NPSL Spirit and the Major Soccer League Blast wound up begging for season-ticket buyers. In Baltimore, when the NLL Thunder played the Wings in that championship final last week, more than half of the crowd at the Baltimore Arena was Philadelphia fans.

"I think they simply don't advertise enough," said Thunder fan Tony Bode, 28, a Baltimore accountant. "We have to tell people what this sport is. If you have to explain to people what sport it is that you're rooting for, it is a clear case of not enough publicity."

A man who agrees with that assessment is Baltimore advertising executive Bob Leffler, who grew up in Philadelphia. Leffler is working on a plan to bring an International Hockey League franchise to town.

"Philadelphia is a broad-based sports town," said Leffler. "Philadelphians would turn up for roller derby. Baltimore is different. It's a pro sports town, a major-league town and a big-event town.

"What happens in Philadelphia with its smaller sports happens naturally. In Baltimore, you have to buy it."

Thunder general manager Jim Ulmond, a Baltimore native, agrees. "There are a lot more sports fans in Philadelphia," he said. "Baltimore loves the Orioles."

Some things sell here

Leffler, who has provided marketing help to teams in the Baltimore Arena since 1987, has made his own in-house study of what it takes to make non-major-league sports work at the Arena.

He has looked at what does work -- the World Wrestling Federation, World Championship Wrestling, Ringling Bros. circus, Disney ice shows. He has calculated the amount of national, televised publicity those activities get, the local publicity, trade advertising and paid advertising they benefit from and what it would cost if they had to buy all of it. Leffler said the cost per date in the Arena would be $35,000.

"These teams -- the lacrosse, soccer and hockey -- get no attention here, so they have to spend $35,000 to $40,000 in advertising a game," said Leffler. He calculates that anyone who starts a secondary sport in Baltimore must be willing to commit from $850,000 to $1 million in advertising per year.

In Philadelphia, the secondary sports get no more publicity in the newspapers or on television and radio stations than their Baltimore counterparts. But the Philly teams' executives say their organizations work hard to get their sports known without the help of general media.

They do it in a variety of ways.

Kixx owner Ed Tepper buys time on a major television station to broadcast 10 of his team's home games. Phantoms chief operating officer Frank Miceli makes sure to promote the Phantoms' "Family Package" -- four tickets, four soft drinks and four hot dogs for $44. And Wings owner Mike French said one of the most important ingredients in his team's attendance success is the "cross-pollination" that is occurring among all the Philadelphia sports franchises.

"We're a footnote, if that, on sports shows in town," French said. "But we benefit from being in this wonderful building [the CoreStates Center], and we benefit from having our name and our games promoted by the building and by other teams in the building.

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