Loyalty is an arcane concept these days

November 20, 2005|By DAN RODRICKS

I see where thousands of Baltimore Ravens fans sold their tickets to today's game with the Pittsburgh Steelers, supposedly as a protest of the home team's lousy season and its anemic offense. All I can say is: That's messed up, baby, but that's our culture. Hey, you there watching ESPN Classic: This is not your father's National Football League! This is not your father's world.

Loyalty?

Died with King Arthur, or maybe the Brooklyn Dodgers.

And if loyalty is not positively, absolutely, undeniably and reliably dead, then it's teetering on the brink.

There's a whole new generation coming up that has to learn what loyalty is. Not just here, but everywhere. You'd have to have a required course to get it across. Green Day would have to write a song about it. Saints' owner Tom Benson would have to suddenly announce that, out of a deep sense of loyalty to a traumatized city, he's keeping the team in New Orleans, no matter what.

Yeah.

Right.

Ours is a cynical, bottom-line world, awash in impatience and short on loyalties. It isn't that Ravens fans are fair-weather fans; they're not. They're just part of this spastic culture of ours.

I'll bet a majority of them voted for George W. Bush, and for the second time only a year ago. What's the president's approval rating now, like 5?

In 1960, the Baltimore Colts played in Baltimore. In 2005, they play in Indianapolis.

In 1960, the Cleveland Browns played in Cleveland. In 1995, they moved to Baltimore.

Trent Dilfer was the QB who took the Ravens to the Super Bowl in 2001. Practically the next day they dumped the guy.

In 1960, there were 30,000 employees at Bethlehem Steel in Baltimore. By 2003, the company was history, and thousands of retired steelworkers lost their health-care plan after a bankruptcy judge sold all the assets. Some retirees lost 50 percent of their pensions.

There's loyalty for ya.

In 1960, the annual investor turnover rate at a New York Stock Exchange company was 14 percent. By 1995, the churn rate was 50 percent, according to Frederick Reichheld, an expert on loyalty in the corporate world.

Major companies replace half their customers in five years, half their employees in little more than four.

Anyone who has worked in corporate America the last two decades, through all this downsizing and bean counting, knows what's going on. The loyalty is to the bottom line - and 28 percent profit margins and fat dividends for impatient stockholders - not to long-term stability and moderate growth, nor to productive employees with brains, skills burnished by experience and a sense of ... loyalty.

I know: I sound as cynical as the world I describe.

I'm not that quite that jaded.

I think sports fans should stick with teams through thick and thin. How can you enjoy winning without suffering first? The Orioles and Ravens have set Baltimore and Maryland up for one humongous, orgasmic party when they finally win something again. There will be so much pent-up emotion that this city, to use a Bawlmer term, will just about 'splode, Hon.

But I recognize that as anachronistic thinking in a world of instant gratification, where the new scarlet letter is L, shaped with finger and thumb on forehead.

Just as Wall Street demands more profit, sports fans expect results. They want returns on their investments - and a permanent seat license is an investment - and they want them yesterday.

So I'm not surprised to see people in Baltimore selling tickets to the Steelers-Ravens game. Maybe it's a protest. Maybe it's just a quick buck, like everything else.

Why suffer through another game when you can get at least double the value for your tickets?

Even Brian Billick, the head coach, seemed to understand all the Ravens traffic on eBay.

"If you're going to sell them, baby, get a premium price," he said to The Sun the other day. "Hell, for the right price, I'll sell my ticket."

Loyalty has a dollar value, and some people don't feel like paying for it anymore.

I remember a discussion with a guy in the Pikesville Hardware store a few years ago. He was disappointed with the price of window screening. He believed he could save a couple of bucks by going to one of those giant warehouse hardware stores. He didn't feel like spending a few extra bucks for loyalty that day.

So he went to HomeLoweDepot, or whatever, and Pikesville Hardware is gone now.

Hey, we've all done that - passed up the neighborhood mom-and-pop retailer to save money at a big-box store the size of Yemen.

Loyalty is nice, but we live in a bottom-line culture. The attitudes that fuel all this have trickled down from the top. Professional athletes - Cal Ripken being one famous exception - bop around as free agents from team to team, chasing the best deal they can get, and the hell with loyalty to a particular city. Companies relocate to other countries, even other continents, leaving displaced workers and depressed communities behind.

So, maybe the great Ravens tickets sellout is a protest of this boring, unhappy season so far.

But I take it as reflective of a trend - thousands of Terrible Towels at a Baltimore stadium that should have been named for Johnny Unitas but got the name of the highest bidder, a Buffalo-based bank, instead. That's messed up, baby, but that's our culture.

dan.rodricks@baltsun.com

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