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The Washington Times

 

You want evidence that there is a new way of doing business in the NFL? Check out the accessories Ravens fans were wearing Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium for Baltimore's game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Scarves. Purple scarves. Purple Ravens scarves 30,000 of them.

In today's NFL, with swaths of empty seats in stadiums across the country, it has come to this giveaways to get fans in the door.

Baseball has done this for decades, with each franchise is trying to attract fans 81 times a year for home games.

The Ravens? Just eight regular season games and if you came to Sunday's game and were one of the first 30,000 fans in the stadium, you got a Ravens scarf.

"You never see NFL teams do a premium promotion like that," said Marty Conway, sports business consultants and instructor in Georgetown's Sports Industry Management program (full disclosure I teach a course with Conway called "Business of Sports Media" in the programs). "Now they are recognizing that they have to figure out some way to both get people to buy and to show up. It's a completely new reality."

Nowhere is that new reality more tangible perhaps than in Washington, where a damaged Redskins fanbase has stayed away from Ghost Town Field, even when the team was 6-3. But empty seats are not just a Washington problem, or a Baltimore problem, or an NFL problem. Many live sporting events are suffering at the box office, and teams are scrambling to come up with solutions.

"It's a little bit of a test," said Baker Koppelman, Ravens vice president of ticket sales and operations. "We wanted to see how people will react.

"We got feedback from people asking why don't you do some giveaways?" Koppelman said. "We thought, 'Why don't we try doing a higher-end giveaway and limit it to a certain number?' It is a means to get people to come earlier. We are conscious of getting people in on time and avoiding that crush 30 minutes before kickoff. It's in everyone's best interest to get in early not just to sell more concessions but to keep from having people stuck in line before the game. It's a combination of things in play."

Judging by the number of empty seats Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium at kickoff for the Ravens' 20-12 win over Tampa Bay with the Ravens at 7-6 at game time, good for the AFC second wild-card playoff position and just a half-game behind the Pittsburgh Steelers for the AFC North crown the scarves didn't deliver. Then again, given the rainy weather, ponchos might have worked better.

The giveaway wasn't the only test the Ravens did to get people into the seats. For their final two home games of the season Sunday's game against Tampa Bay and the season finale Dec. 30 against the Cleveland Browns the team offered a two-game package for $44, only available via its mobile ticket app. Under this offer, you don't know your seat until you arrive at the stadium.

It is, as they say, for the kids.

Last year, the NFL told all its teams that after the 2019 season, they would have to be on a digital ticketing platform. Some made the change right away, like the New York Jets. The Ravens did it this season. The Redskins have yet to do so, but Washington has been aggressive in trying to sell individual game day tickets through traditional advertising and promotion.

For the Ravens, the two-game, $44 social media promotion is an attempt to reach out to the younger audience the NFL fears it is losing.

"It's the clearest attempt yet to try to figure out how to interact with the younger audience in the hope that they will want to buy in this format, where they have flexibility and make their decisions late," Conway said.

Koppelman acknowledged it is reaching out to that millennial audience that is not following in the traditional path of consuming sports in America.

"It's a test related to a different audience, targeted toward a younger audience," he said. "It's all done through social media. It's not something we promote otherwise. A means of trying to get tickets to people in a younger scene who can't necessarily afford to pay full price.

"It's something we wanted to try," he said. "We are all trying to find ways to connect with new and young fans, and this is probably the most interesting way to do that right now. We want to see how it goes and what kind of response we get from it. We will evaluate at the end of the year."

There is no going back, though. The days of teams selling season tickets for a few months and then counting their money the rest of the time are over. "That model is gone," Conway said. "Now they essentially have to be like every business and sell their inventory every day. They will have to adapt to the mode of, 'How do we exist every day?'"

It is the new world order in the business of sports. "The landscape has definitely changed," Koppelman said. "We are just in a position that we have to look at new ways of doing things. That's the way the world works. The world changes."

The world in Baltimore once was this:

It was the old Memorial Stadium packed with passionate Colts fans the "world's largest insane asylum," as one New York sports columnist wrote.

It was a world where Colt Corral fan clubs stayed together during the 12 years the NFL was absent from Charm City, and then became Ravens Roosts upon the return of football in 1996.

It was a world that turned Ravens purple every Friday, everywhere you looked, celebrating two Super Bowl championships, the second one not that long ago.

It's a world now where they'll give you a purple scarf for showing up.

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