At a loss for city's passion

Ravens: Ticket sales are strong, but TV ratings are disappointing. For the team to bring fans to an Orioles-like fever pitch, it needs one thing a winner.

November 21, 1999|By John Eisenberg | John Eisenberg,SUN COLUMNIST

If you put a thermometer in Baltimore and gauged the city's interest in the Ravens, where would the mercury go? Right to 98.6, that's where: not too high and not too low.

There's no football fever, that's for sure. Dismal local television ratings reflect a lack of interest beyond the hard-core football audience, which is somewhat of a surprise, although not a major one given the team's 19-37-1 record since kicking off in Baltimore in 1996.

At the same time, strong sales of tickets, corporate sponsorships and team merchandise suggest the interest isn't cool, either.

Overall, the Ravens are still lagging behind the Orioles, who remain the local secular religion despite a drop in attendance in 1999 and widespread fan discontent after two straight losing seasons and more front office upheaval orchestrated by owner Peter Angelos last month.

"I'd say the Orioles still have more interest [from fans], but that could change in the next couple of years, depending on what happens," said David Greenwood, a retired Baltimore County school administrator, former Colts season-ticker holder and longtime observer of the local sports scene.

"It's still a baseball town," said Michael Gill, a Baltimore business owner with season tickets to both teams. "But as much as I love the Orioles, I'm peeved at them. And I know I'm not alone."

Had the Ravens fielded a winning team in such an environment this season, they could have attracted a slew of new fans. But with offensive woes and a 3-6 record going into today's game against the Bengals in Cincinnati, they're still the city's second-favorite son.

"Their home games are a really nice entertainment product," Gill said, "but until they start winning, you'll find cheap tickets to their games floating around."

In that sense, measuring the interest in the Ravens is almost unfair at this point. With little tradition and a .333 winning percentage to sell, they have no chance of spiking a high civic fever and challenging the Orioles' popularity.

Let's see them have a winning season, and see how the city responds, before making any judgments about Baltimore as an NFL market this time around.

The Rams, who moved from Southern California to St. Louis in 1995, didn't create a stir in their new hometown until they emerged as a high-scoring Super Bowl contender this year. Now, baseball-mad St. Louis has contracted a case of football fever.

"Bottom-line, you have to win," said Ravens president David Modell, son of owner Art Modell. "I think we're in a town that loves football and is poised for an explosion of enthusiasm, but we have to get off our butts and provide a winner."

Until then -- and there's no guarantee it will happen, of course -- expect more of what happened two weeks ago, when the Ravens played in Cleveland for the first time since Modell moved the franchise. The game drew a local television rating of 28 in Cleveland and only 13.8 in Baltimore, according to Nielsen Media Research.

That was a typically discouraging number for the Ravens, who ranked 29th among the 30 NFL teams in local ratings in 1998 and are drawing similarly low numbers this season. They did draw their highest rating (20.8) since moving to Baltimore for a road loss to the Tennessee Titans on Oct. 10, but teams with strong followings, such as the Green Bay Packers, Dallas Cowboys and Washington Redskins, routinely draw ratings at least twice as high.

The Ravens offer a variety of rationales for the low ratings -- changing viewer habits, several years of superb fall weather, young fans who grew accustomed to doing other things on Sundays -- and while some might have merit, the overall conclusion is indisputable: The Ravens have a solid core of loyal fans, but the broader base of casual fans just isn't there.

Plain and simple, the city's pulse rises and falls more when the Orioles play.

That might be a surprise given the sadness in town after the Colts left in 1984, and the anticipation and frustration that resonated for a dozen years as the city sought another NFL team. Then, it was assumed the NFL's return would generate wild excitement.

What's happened?

Some fans hate that it took stealing Cleveland's team to bring one here. Some disliked having permanent seat licenses shoved down their throats. Some can't forget the Colts. Some still carry a grudge against the NFL. Some don't trust the debt-ladened Modell's ability to field a winner.

Add it all up and there's enough to keep the city's football temperature from rising beyond normal.

"Maybe the original expectations [of interest] were too high," David Modell said. "Bringing a team back to a market that's lost a team obviously isn't the same as starting fresh with an expansion team. Look at Cleveland. The evil Ravens finally returned [two weeks ago] and the fans were asleep. Some of the old heat wasn't there. So is it Baltimore that's flawed, or is it that these teams take time to reinstitute themselves?"

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