Let's get Billicked!

Soft drink? Web site? Epithet? Verb? No, just a new game in town.

August 22, 1999|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,SUN STAFF

Signs of change are everywhere for the Baltimore Ravens.

The team's logo, which never really became familiar, is coming down, gradually being replaced by a more pedestrian, lawsuit-inspired profile of a bird. (The old winged-shield logo can still be seen about town, though, hanging from a streetlight sign or two, lurking like the team's namesake omnivore.)

Coming down, too, are the tacky vinyl signs that went up on the former Ravens stadium after the blockbuster sponsorship deal with PSINet was announced. Soon, some $400,000 worth of giant aluminum letters draped in purple neon will announce the stadium's unpronounceable moniker.

Most jarring, however, are the billboards touting the '99 Ravens. Hoping to generate excitement about a team that has stumbled its way to the worst record in football over the past three seasons, the Ravens chose to highlight not a marquee player but the team's new coach: Brian Billick.

Certainly great hopes have arrived with Billick, who accomplished much running the Minnesota Vikings' offense the last couple of years. But his lead role in a marketing campaign seems odd. His is hardly a household name. He's never held elective office. Never walked in space. Never even been an NFL head coach before. How could he inspire sales of $300-a-game tickets?

Perhaps the answer lies in the inscrutability of the signs themselves, which from the Beltway to Bel Air shout simply "Billick!" in tall, black letters.

Left to the imagination of passing motorists is the precise nature of this thing called Billick! Is it an ultra-caffeinated soft drink? An SUV with too much bounce in the suspension? Perhaps it's a Web page missing its dot and com.

And how to pronounce it? The exclamation point -- which, one assumes, must also punctuate the coach's birth certificate -- suggests a rise in pitch on the second syllable.

But where to put the accent? Certainly a French-style beel-ik (as in "le Beel-ick!") will never do on the gridiron. No, the muscular nature of the sport and the plurality of guttural consonants shoves the emphasis to the second syllable. And it must be said fast, abruptly. No lingering notes to muddy the crescendo: "Blick!" At PSINet Stadium, it would make a nice war cry: "Blick! Blick! Blick!" Much more urgency than "Tora, Tora, Tora!"

And what about grammar? Is Billick! a verb? Passive as well as active? Will schoolchildren decline it on blackboards? Encounter it on the SAT? To Billick! To be Billicked! To have Billicked! To have been Billicked!

Unraveling these mysteries will have to wait, possibly until Y2Billick! Of more immediate concern to the Ravens is the effectiveness of the unorthodox strategy. Spokesman Kevin Byrne says the team hopes the campaign ignites hope among fans that their suffering may be nearing an end.

"The feeling is the players have been here but the difference-maker is Brian Billick," Byrne says. "Internally we determined that Billick was the thing we had to promote."

The results have been encouraging: Season ticket sales are running about 2,000 ahead of last year, and half of this season's games are already sold out.

And how have the Billick! billboards played with the coach himself? "He jokes about it. He told me, `I'm too ugly to have my head blown up that big,' " Byrne says.

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