Thirty years ago last month, the Baltimore Colts left town, and the loss of the beloved NFL franchise was a stunning blow not only to football fans but to the city's identify. Nine years later, Baltimore's image as a sports town suffered another big hit when, after getting passed over for an expansion franchise, then-NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue famously suggested a museum be purchased for the city instead.

The beauty of that "Let them eat fossils and Pre-Columbian art" put-down was that it not only implied that an NFL team would never be coming to Baltimore but that the city had a cultural deficit, too. Whatever chip on the shoulder Baltimore had from the day of the Mayflower moving vans suddenly got a lot heavier.

The story had a happy ending, of course, but despite the arrival of the Baltimore Ravens five years later, the lingering image of Charm City as a second-rate sports venue remained. It's an insecurity reinforced by the loss of an NBA franchise, the Baltimore Bullets, which moved to the Washington D.C. area in the early 1970s and is now the Wizards. And that wasn't even the first Bullets team Baltimore lost. That distinction goes to the 1949-1954 NBA team that ultimately went out of business entirely.

But while such events left their psychic scars, it's clear that Baltimore's reputation as a place that celebrates and supports a variety of athletic competitions is getting better all the time. The latest evidence is the incredible turnout for the Ultimate Fighting Championship showcase, UFC 172, at the Baltimore Arena. Not only was Saturday's event a sell-out but the city's embrace of ultimate fighting — still a relatively young sport — was off-the-charts enthusiastic. That the evening's card featured Jon "Bones" Jones, the brother of former Ravens player Arthur Jones, probably didn't hurt.

Meanwhile, organizers revealed that close to 50,000 tickets have already been sold for the NCAA Men's Lacrosse Championships at M&T Bank Stadium on Memorial Day Weekend. That's remarkable and on apparently on pace with last year's ticket sales when the championships were held in Philadelphia. That event ultimately attracted 79,179 spectators, but we suspect Maryland lacrosse fans can do better still — the last time the championships (which feature the semifinals and finals of the Division I, II and III men's teams) were held at M&T in 2011, the total attendance was 98,786.

Frankly, the lacrosse finals should be held in Baltimore every year. The city still holds the attendance record (123,225 in 2007), and it would be much easier to guarantee such crowds in the future if the NCAA stopped shuffling the event among Baltimore, Philadelphia and Foxborough, Mass. Lacrosse may be the fastest growing team sport in the country, but few places in the country are as steeped in the sport as the Baltimore area. Even at the local dry cleaners, they have to make sure the "crease" a customer is talking about is on a pair of pants. We own college lacrosse. Just ask the women in College Park or the men up at Loyola University Maryland. (Not that you don't have something to say about that, too, Johns Hopkins.) Heck, three Maryland teams are in the men's Division I top 10, and three in the top 10 for D-III.

All of which is a lot more than fodder for conversation at the local sports bar. Sports entertainment is a moneymaker. When everything from hotel rooms to tee-shirt sales are added up, UFC 172 is believed to have generated more than $25 million in economic activity for Baltimore. That's almost exactly how much Philadelphia is believed to have gained from last year's lacrosse championships as well. Even the now-defunct Baltimore Grand Prix, although it didn't work out as envisioned, was estimated to have produced as much as $47 million in economic activity during the best of its three years.

The fact is Baltimore is a great sports town, particularly for its size. While it's unlikely to land an NBA or NHL team any time soon, there are still tremendous opportunities for athletic events to be staged here from World Cup soccer to Olympic qualifiers, Army-Navy football and anything else that might interest the average ESPN viewer. That's not just a point of pride, it's one of dollars and cents.


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