It seems paradoxical: The Ravens, who have sold out every home game since they arrived in Baltimore in 1996, are advertising tickets for Sunday’s contest at M&T Bank Stadium.
But this is where the Ravens find themselves in 2017: Contemplating the prospect of empty seats, and appealing to fans to “Win Together. Purchase your tickets today!” even as the team is contending for what would be its first playoff berth since 2014.
Thousands of fans are trying to resell their tickets to the sold-out game Sunday against the Detroit Lions at 71,000-seat M&T Bank Stadium via Ticketmaster, the team’s official resale outlet, or StubHub. Seats were available this week in almost every section; an $80 ticket for an upper end zone seat could be had for as little as $29.
Every week, some ticket holders must miss the game. But the NFL is laboring across the board this season to maintain its fan base and minimize no-shows. It’s not just the Ravens. Television ratings are down league-wide and empty seats can be seen at many games.
The league faces troubles on multiple fronts this year from politics to health and the game itself. There’s fan anger, stoked by President Donald Trump, over the decision of some players to kneel during the national anthem to protest racial inequity and police brutality; injuries to star players such as Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers; fresh concerns about the long-term effects of hits and concussions on players’ brains; and inconsistent play.
"The Ravens are finding themselves in the same situation as a lot of NFL teams this year,” said T.J. Brightman, president of A. Bright Idea, a public relations and marketing firm with offices in Bel Air and California. “There is a disengagement by fans across the country stemming from the daily and weekly stories the NFL league office confronts.”
The Ravens, who seem unable to mount a threatening offense, exemplify the challenge on the field. The team ranks 31st of 32 NFL teams in total offense (although, true-to-form, the defense is among the league’s best; the team is the first since the 2003 Super Bowl Champion New England Patriots to record three shutouts in a season).
But with six wins and five losses, the Ravens are fighting for a wild card spot in the playoffs. If the season ended now, they would capture the sixth and final American Football Conference spot, good for a first-round matchup with the Tennessee Titans.
Still, there were wide swaths of empty purple seats, particularly in the upper deck, during the later stages of Monday night’s Ravens’ victory over the Houston Texans.
While the Ravens do not release the number of “no-shows,” the team says fans are more prone to skip night games than day games, particularly in November and December.
The rise of online sites has enabled fans to easily sell their tickets and watch from home, where they can not only watch the games but also track their fantasy football teams. High-definition televisions, which have improved in quality and come down in price, are enticing many fans to spend Sundays in their living rooms or basements.
“Watching from the comfort of home is what we battle,” said Baker Koppelman, Ravens vice president for ticket sales and operations. “Having a fan-friendly, dynamic and exciting environment at our home games is something we work at, tweak and talk about constantly. It is a relentless pursuit and we are in it together.”
The Ravens say they took the unusual step of advertising tickets not only to help themselves — teams get a cut from seats resold on Ticketmaster — but also to help get better deals for their fans who are selling. The Ravens have advertised tickets for Sunday’s game on their website and in The Baltimore Sun.
While the club declined to address how many times it has done this in the past, Koppelman acknowledged “it is relatively new for us to advertise or promote ticket sales when we’ve sold out every game in our history.”
But this has been a most unusual season, marked by the debate over players, including some Ravens, who have followed the lead of former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick by taking a knee during the “Star-Spangled Banner.” Trump called for owners to fire players who don’t stand for the anthem.
At the height of the tensions in September, the Ravens postponed a lunch-hour pep rally at White Marsh Mall. After franchise icon Ray Lewis joined current players in kneeling, extra security was added near his statue at M&T Bank Stadium. Some called on the team to remove the retired star’s likeness from the grounds.
Brightman said the NFL has struggled during the protests “to take into account both the fans’ and players’ positions.”
“The league has an issue in front of them that demands they keep owners, players, fans and ultimately their business partners — sponsors — happy,” he said. “They aren't doing any of this well.”
A month into the season, the Ravens tried to appeal to the opposing factions when the players kneeled for a prayer to promote unity, then stood when the anthem was played. Fans still booed.
It doesn’t help that the Ravens are “a .500 team at best,” Brightman said.
Last season, after the team lost four games in a row, tickets for a November contest against the winless Cleveland Browns could be had for $30.
This season, the Ravens are playing meaningful games in December.
But somehow, Robert Harris said, games don’t feel the same.
The 48-year-old New Freedom, Pa., man has 10 personal seat licenses, six televisions for football viewing in his basement, and his stadium section number — 541 — painted on the wall.
“It’s not as intense as it used to be,” Harris said. “I remember it would be wall-to-wall people. You couldn’t even go to the bathroom. Now you can go to the bathroom whenever you want.”
Harris, a construction foreman, still goes to the games. But “I know some people from the Ravens Roost putting their tickets up for sale.”
Season-ticket holder Jim Runser of Westminster said there is frustration with the team’s lack of punch on offense.
“Friends of mine that have come to games with me in the past have little interest in coming,” he said.
If the games don’t feel as special, Runser said, it might be because the NFL has hit a saturation point. Five years ago, the league expanded its Thursday night lineup from a half season to a full season, and now struggles to field compelling matchups to compete with the national games on Sunday and Monday nights.
Runser joined the more than 4,000 Ravens fans who trekked to London's Wembley Stadium in September to see the team lose 44-7 to the Jacksonville Jaguars. That tied the franchise mark for the most lopsided defeat.
“It was a great time,” he said. “Except for the three and a half hours watching football.”
The Ravens, buoyed by Super Bowl victories in the 2000 and 2012 seasons, remain a popular brand in Baltimore. In January, the team said it was investing $120 million in M&T Bank Stadium as part of a three-year project to add elevators and escalators, enlarge the end zone video boards and improve the sound system and kitchen facilities.
The season ticket renewal percentage is 99 percent, and the waiting list for permanent seat licenses numbers about 2,500 fans, the club said.
Permanent seat licenses are akin to an initiation fee for season-ticket holders; a fan must buy a license before he or she can purchase a season ticket. Licenses range in price from $750 to $8,000. Season tickets range from $676 to $3,826 for two exhibition games and eight regular season games.
ESPN’s national broadcast of Monday night’s Ravens game drew a 6.0 overnight rating, according to Nielsen, meaning an estimated 6 percent of households in metered markets tuned in. That’s tied for second worst all time, behind only the New Orleans Saints-Atlanta Falcons game that aired opposite the first presidential debate between Trump and Hillary Clinton last year.
But Baltimore tuned in. The broadcast earned a 25.4 rating in the city, significantly better than Houston’s 18.4, according to the Houston Chronicle. A Nielsen spokesman did not confirm the numbers.
“As evidenced by the ratings, there is definite interest in Ravens programming,” said Dan Joerres, president and general manager of WBAL-TV.
The station produces a weekly show, Ravens Wrap-up, that airs after the late news on Sunday nights. Household ratings are up over 2016, he said.
The Ravens strive for good television ratings. But they say they need to keep fans showing up at the stadium.
“The persuasion to have them come to our games is highly important, especially in the holiday season when it’s colder — and when we get the occasional non-traditional game time,” Koppelman said. “Their attendance is paramount to keeping our home-field advantage and reminding the rest of the NFL what football means to this city.”
Ravens tickets by the numbers
25,000 -- number of Personal Seat License holders for Ravens games at M&T Bank Stadium
2,500 -- number of fans on the waiting list for a seat license
$676 to $3,826 - cost of season tickets for Ravens seat license holders
99 percent-plus -- renewal rate for Ravens season ticket holders for the last 15 seasons
6.0 -- Nielsen rating nationally for the Ravens' Monday night game against the Houston Texans, meaning 6 percent of households tuned in, the second lowest all time
25.4 -- Nielsen rating in Baltimore for the Ravens' Monday night game against the Houston Texans