Fans' empty feelings putting city's reputation on hot seat

December 17, 2005|By JOHN EISENBERG

What does it say about Baltimore as a football town that around 15,000 seats weren't filled when the Ravens played the Houston Texans earlier this month?

It doesn't say nice things, that's for sure.

And what does it say that the scene likely will be repeated to some degree as the Ravens close out their home schedule against the Green Bay Packers on Monday night and the Minnesota Vikings on Christmas night?

Again, whatever it says, it's not a compliment.

Baltimore's bona fides as a football town would seem to be beyond reproach - the Colts once sold out 51 games in a row, and the Ravens have sold every ticket for every game since moving from Cleveland a decade ago. Even when the Orioles were at their best in the late 1960s, the Colts easily outdrew them.

But don't all those empty seats, coinciding with what might be the most disappointing Ravens season ever, suggest that some fans are (ouch) fair-weather supporters, the first to cheer wins but also the first to abandon ship when it sinks?

"I'm not buying that," said Bob Leffler, head of the Leffler Agency, the Baltimore-based sports advertising and marketing firm.

I called Leffler because he runs campaigns for an assortment of NFL and college teams (including the Ravens), spends his weekends in stadiums across the country and understands the modern fan as well as anyone.

Here's what I asked: If fans of the Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants endured years of losing and still packed their stadiums, and if fans of the Packers (more than 230 straight sellouts) show up no matter what, isn't Baltimore forfeiting its right to be included in that first tier of hardcore football towns when losses translate into empty seats?

"There are a couple of special situations, but otherwise, everyone is in the same boat," Leffler said. "And trust me, things are fine here. What's happening is completely normal."

Leffler has an office in Tampa and pointed out that he watched empty seats at Buccaneers games increase when that team declined after winning a Super Bowl in January 2003.

"It's just human nature - you were winning, and now you're losing, and it's disappointing," he said. "Most people still come out, but a percentage get mad. Maybe it's surprising to see the empty seats in some places, but it happens virtually everywhere."

He cited the example of the Eagles, who are 5-8 and going nowhere in 2005 after reaching the Super Bowl last season.

"They have great fans up there, but do you think every seat is going to be filled for the rest of the year after a 42-0 loss at home on Monday Night Football?" Leffler asked, referring to the Seahawks' lopsided win at Philly's Lincoln Financial Field earlier this month. "I'm guessing there will be some empty seats there. But that doesn't make it any less of a football town.

"Look, it's not like the 1970s when the Giants and Eagles were full [in the stands] even though they were losing. There's so much more to do now - TiVo, the Internet, mega-malls. People have places to go and things to do, and when their team is losing and the urgency isn't there, they shrug. It doesn't mean they're quitting as fans of the team; more like they're just taking a break."

What is dangerous, he said, is when people stop caring altogether - a circumstance no one could apply to Baltimore, gauging from the palpable angst the Ravens continue to generate.

Not going? Maybe that's the case with some fans here. But not caring? Forget it.

"What I hear is people talking about them constantly, criticizing, complaining, offering ideas about how to get better," Leffler said. "The anger actually is a good sign. It shows how much you care."

An example of a city that stopped caring would be, well, Baltimore in the last years Robert Irsay owned and mismanaged the Colts. As his antics and threats exacted a toll, attendance shrank. Only 20,418 watched the last home game at Memorial Stadium in December 1983.

I said to Leffler: Given that history, don't empty seats have an ominous meaning in this town? Don't they signify something chilling?

"It's apples and oranges, then and now," he said. "Some people might be angry now, but I drive by the [Ravens'] stadium, and the parking lot is full, people are tailgating, the event is still big. It's all institutionalized."

And Irsay doesn't own the team.

"These things are cyclical," Leffler said. "A team goes up, a team goes down, and attendance follows suit. It's down here now, but when the team gets better, there won't be a problem."

Packers@Ravens Monday, 9 p.m., chs. 2, 7, 1300 AM, 102.7 FM Line: Ravens by 3 1/2

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