What's black, gold and takes all over? In opener on Sunday, Steelers fans may not be quite as big a force

September 04, 1998|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

Will the curiosity and civic pride in Baltimore and environs outweigh the passion and resourcefulness of Pittsburgh Steelers fans?

The answer will come Sunday, when the Ravens get another fresh start with their opener. Baltimore's first regular-season game in its new, $223 million stadium will provide plenty of significance, and interest only increased when the NFL made the opponent the Steelers, who usually have a strong following here.

How many permanent seat license holders will pass on being witnesses to Baltimore history and sell tickets for as much as a 400 percent markup? Would a Ravens fan or a Steelers fan be more compelled to fork over $175 to a ticket agent for a $35 seat in the lower end zone?

"I think everyone is going to be surprised by how many people in black and gold are going to be there," said Steve Chiurazzi, president of the Pittsburgh Steelers Fan Club of Baltimore.

That group was founded in 1990. The absence of an NFL team was part of the impetus, but it was formed primarily because thousands of western Pennsylvanians packed their Steelers worship when they moved to the Land of Pleasant Living.

The club has more than 1,700 members, but it seemed 10 times that many voices cheered on the visitors Oct. 5 at Memorial Stadium. As much as one-third of the crowd was dressed in Pittsburgh colors, and those fans' presence apparently rankled the Ravens almost as much as the Steelers' 42-34, comeback victory.

"I've never seen anything like this in the NFL," offensive lineman Wally Williams said.

The phenomenon was hardly new. In December 1976, Steelers fans commanded the open end of Memorial Stadium when Pittsburgh bombed the Colts out of the NFL playoffs. Their effect became a footnote, however, when Donald Kroner crashed a small plane into the upper deck shortly after the game.

Jack Staley, who organizes Steelers functions at the Calgary Cattle Company in Parkville, said at least 500 Pittsburgh fans started their moving tailgate party there before last year's game. On Sunday, he anticipates closer to 200. He chartered just two buses this year, because tickets are much hotter commodities.

Chiurazzi, a Pasadena resident who was raised in Shaler, Pa., got two tickets to the opener as a wedding present, and, yes, he's taking his bride. Staley, a mail carrier from Essex by way of Sewickley, Pa., was provided four tickets by the same friend who got him into Memorial Stadium last year.

Ed Napoleone and Frank Moore wanted something firmer than the largess of friends. Napoleone purchased two PSLs, "specifically so I have tickets for the Steelers." Moore bought four PSLs, and easily rationalized the $3,000 expense.

"I think the city is going to go nuts over the Ravens if they ever get it turned around," said Moore, a native of New Kensington, Pa., who now lives in Millersville. "I can always sell them, and I think it's going to turn into a good investment."

That sounds good to Roy Sommerhof, the Ravens ticket manager, who wants the new stadium filled, preferably with Baltimore fans.

The Ravens placed 6,000 end-zone seats on sale on a per-game basis Aug. 15, but that block of seats for Sunday's opener was distributed via lottery. Sommerhof said the Ravens sell 2,000 seats each game to ticket agents and, for the opener, they were packaged with tickets to the two exhibition games and the Oct. 11 game against the Tennessee Oilers.

Sommerhof said there was little interest from ticket brokers and travel agents in Steelers country.

"Because of the packaging, most of those went locally," Sommerhof said. "Very, very few of those went to the Pittsburgh area. They weren't enthusiastic about that package."

The majority of Steelers fans who have shown up in Baltimore come from Harrisburg, York and other towns in southeasternPennsylvania, western Pennsylvania and western Maryland, and gaining admittance to Sunday's game could be more challenging for them.

What is a common business practice for professional franchises and major colleges sounds like a conspiracy to Staley.

"[Ravens owner Art] Modell held out those tickets to keep them from Steelers fans," Staley said. "He's told people that he didn't want all the Steelers fans there, but he's going to be surprised. Steelers fans are very hard-core. They'll find a way to get in."

Pub Date: 9/04/98

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