Little bit of home on Florida roads

Welcome: Going an extra mile to ensure the Ravens feel at ease in Tampa, the team's marketing people have taken the billboard route.

January 24, 2001|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

TAMPA, Fla. - The Ravens are one of the winningest road teams in the National Football League, but the club's marketing department spent a great deal of time and money to make sure the players feel at home during the week leading up to Super Bowl XXXV.

Head down Interstate 275 toward Raymond James Stadium - the site of Sunday's title game between the Ravens and New York Giants - and you just might think you're on the Jones Falls Expressway.

The Ravens greet you from 14 billboards in the vicinity of the stadium and the team hotel, giving an air of familiarity to a place where the team has never played.

Billboards don't impress you? Wait until dark and look at the skyline, where you're likely to see a building or two decked out in purple neon or illuminated with a projected Ravens emblem.

If you didn't know better, you might think that this was some mild form of psychological warfare - perhaps an attempt to one-up the Giants in a city that is known for its New York connections - but Ravens president David Modell said yesterday that the club's little experiment in exterior decorating was directed only at the Ravens and their fans.

"I think it was merely that we wanted our guys to feel more at home," Modell said yesterday. "If you notice where they [the billboards] are placed, on the routes to the practice field and the stadium and the airport, you can see that it's just to give them a little sense of home."

Don't kid yourself. There's some brand marketing going on, too, but you can't blame the Ravens for (pardon the expression) shilling two birds with one stone.

The franchise has an opportunity to make its first big national impression since its controversial move from Cleveland to Baltimore five years ago. It's no coincidence that those billboards also dot the routes taken by the busloads of national media covering the game.

"We didn't want to appear like a first-time team," Modell added. "We wanted it to look like this is where we expected to be."

Of course, it isn't the kind of thing you do overnight. The club that reached the Super Bowl on the wings of Brian Billick's never-look-ahead coaching philosophy has been preparing for the Super Bowl for weeks. The billboard idea dates back to before the Ravens scored back-to-back playoff upsets in Tennessee and Oakland.

"We began to talk about things we could do to make the city we played in more Raven-friendly back before the Tennessee game," said Dennis Mannion, Ravens vice president of business development and marketing.

"It took a couple of weeks of planning. We were fortunate that the ad agency that represents us also has an office in Tampa that has strong connections with the billboard companies. That gave us some flexibility."

Still, team officials had to walk that fine line between preparation and presumption. Billick didn't want his players to mention the Super Bowl until they defeated the Oakland Raiders in the AFC championship game, but even he had to be involved in some advance planning.

"I would have to send e-mails to him," Modell said. "Internally, it got to be kind of a funny thing."

The Balt-ification program doesn't stop with the outdoor displays. The Ravens also have worked out a deal with the St. Petersburg Times newspaper to print cheer cards and has brought in the Ravens' cheerleaders to make several promotional appearances.

"We basically tried to take the same marketing formula we use in Baltimore and bring it down here," Mannion said. "There was even a point where we considered having some presence at the Capitals-Tampa Bay Lightning [NHL] game. But primarily, David [Modell] expressed to us that it was very important to create a hometown feel for the players."

If that was the goal, the campaign already is a success. The players saw the billboards on their way into town from Tampa International Airport.

"That's great," said offensive lineman Jonathan Ogden. "I think it just says, `We're here, Art's finally here and we want to do it right.' "

Intended or not, it also says that Tampa doesn't belong to New York, even though it's the second home of controversial New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, and the Yankees' spring training site (Legends Field) is right across the street from Raymond James Stadium.

"It shows they have a lot of support," said New York Giants wide receiver Ike Hilliard, "but we have a lot of support, too."

Giants defensive end Cedric Jones said he noticed the billboards when his team was coming in from the airport and wasn't sure what to think.

"I did see a couple of them," he said. "I don't know if they want to make it seem like a home game for them or what ... I was surprised."

The Giants scoffed at the notion that they might be the target of a little front-office gamesmanship, even though the Ravens' promotional advantage appears to be a lot wider than the three-point betting line.

"I'm not worried about that," said Giants vice president/general manager Ernie Accorsi. "I'm more worried about their players than their billboards."

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