Deals put Ravens on hot seat to produce

February 02, 1999|By KEN ROSENTHAL

Wake up, Baltimore! The Ravens were founded on the principle, "Show me the money." You expected them to operate as a not-for-profit organization?

When a team pays $10 million to sell the name of its stadium, you can expect a distasteful corporate tie-in.

And when a team says it will hold ticket prices for three years, you can expect a major increase in the fourth season.

Much as it might disturb some segments of the local populace, the calendar no longer reads 1955.

And much as it might disturb the PSINet Ravens, their latest bows to the almighty dollar only mean that they will be judged even more harshly than before.

They haven't exactly captivated the sporting public during their brief, torturous three-year history. And now, they risk alienating even their core fans.

They take, they take, they take -- a publicly financed stadium here, permanent-seat licenses there, $105.5 million from PSINet, untold millions from soon-to-be-gouged club-seat holders.

It's time they start giving back.

The outrage over the PSINet deal is misdirected -- if you want to blame someone, blame the Maryland Stadium Authority for selling the naming rights in the first place.

And if you want to criticize the Ravens, criticize them for prostituting themselves like few teams in sports history in slavish pursuit of a "presenting sponsor."

But as for the name itself, who cares?

Fans will call the stadium what they want to call it. And if the Ravens ever start winning, the issue will seem even more irrelevant and sophomoric than it does now.

You can't have it both ways, OK?

If you're a fan, you can't criticize owner Art Modell for falling $185 million in debt, then criticize him again for cutting a landmark business deal, obscene as it may be.

And if you're the Ravens, you can't turn every revenue stream into a mighty river, and expect your mere existence to strike an emotional chord with your fans.

The team has promised to forgo ticket-price increases until 2001. But with club seats rising by as much as 50 percent by 2003, everyone knows what's coming.

Money might not be the root of all evil, but it certainly is the root of this franchise.

Team officials wonder when they will stop being viewed as out-of-towners who scored the deal of a lifetime, stop being held to a higher standard than the Orioles.

At this rate, the answer is never.

You don't see Orioles owner Peter Angelos trying to sell the name of his ballpark. True, Angelos built his wealth as an attorney, while Modell has no other income. But Angelos fields record payrolls, and could justify an attempt to create revenue, especially if it helped hold down ticket prices.

The Ravens had the second-lowest payroll in the NFL last season. That likely will change, but new coach Brian Billick said last week that, "going out and acquiring the big-priced free agent is not necessarily the way to go."

Billick seemed to be warning against haphazard spending, citing Washington and Carolina as teams that made ill-advised plunges into free agency. The Ravens need not follow those examples. But how can they not sink money into the team now?

They've got no reason to continue operating in the NFL's low-rent district. No reason to delay construction on a new state-of-the-art practice facility that would entice free agents. No reason to dismiss the purchase of a signature bird for the new stadium, or any other gesture to the community.

The 40-foot raven sculpture might seem like a silly issue, but it's the principle of the thing, the notion of take-take-take, with little in return.

The Ravens wouldn't spring for the bird last season, but team vice president David Modell said he expected it to eventually take its place on top of the stadium's southwest corner.

Slap a PSINet logo on it, and you've probably got a deal.

Again, this all will be forgotten if the Ravens start winning. But Billick's mission is probably greater than he ever imagined.

It's daunting enough that he must rebuild a team that went 16-31-1 in its first three seasons. It's even more daunting, knowing that if he fails, the franchise might never recover.

The honeymoon is over, and the Ravens have no one to blame but themselves. They've delivered a losing product. And they've exposed their true colors -- green and more green.

The PSINet deal is understandable. Even the dramatic increase in club-seat prices is understandable, if the market will bear it. This is pro sports in the '90s. Every city must deal with such indignities.

Baltimore, however, might be approaching its limit. It has tolerated much from the Ravens. It almost certainly will tolerate more. But at some point, it will demand a return.

For all the fans care, the Ravens could sell their souls, as long as the team won. But when they raise the stakes like this, they reduce their margin for error.

They have every right to follow their bottom line.

And the fans have every right to follow theirs.

Pub Date: 2/02/99

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