Ravens at Work: Head of ticket sales Baker Koppelman on front line of team-fan relations

Every week during the season, The Baltimore Sun will spotlight how a member of the Ravens organization does his or her job.

Sometimes, after the Ravens have played particularly well on the road, Baker Koppelman lingers on the field, peering up at the joyous Baltimore fans who’ve traveled to foreign turf to celebrate their team.

These are the moments when he most appreciates his job as the team’s senior vice president of ticket sales and operations.

“You feel it in your spine, what it means to people,” he said.

Koppelman is a Baltimore guy who grew up living and dying with the Orioles, who stared lovingly at the glossy images on the Colts’ season tickets that arrived in the mail for his grandfather’s law firm. When he sees that same passion in the faces of Ravens fans, some of whom he helped get to the game, he’s closing a personal circle.

“The Colts and the Orioles in the ’50s and ’60s built the foundation in terms of sports in this city and why it matters,” he said. “It’s why we exist here. … If you look at it on paper, we’re a small market surrounded by big markets and it’s easy to say Baltimore is maybe not worthy of having an NFL franchise. But we’ve — the term overachieved might be strong — but we’ve always competed well with big markets.”

He compares the city’s fan base to his Jack Russell Terrier. “They think they’re big dogs, and they’ll fight you tooth and nail,” he said. “Baltimore’s that way. We hang. I remember David Modell back in the early days, saying, ‘Look at little Baltimore and the revenue we’re bringing in.’ It’s because of that passion that gets passed down generation to generation.”

As the guy in charge of selling tickets, he lives on the front line of that town-team relationship.

“In a lot of ways, we are the primary conduit,” Koppelman said. “Art Modell would say, ‘Everyone should spend some time in ticketing.’ Because you really learn the business — how people think and what they’re about and what matters to them. It’s the core of the business at the end of the day.”

Selling pro football tickets in Baltimore has generally not been daunting work. The city has embraced the Ravens with the zeal of a college fan base, filling M&T Bank Stadium for every home game and renewing season tickets at a steady 99 percent rate.

But with the Ravens in danger of missing the playoffs for a fourth time in five seasons, slight cracks have begun to appear in the team’s bond with its home fans. Thousands of seats have remained empty at games that sold out on paper, and the Ravens are still trying to sell single-game tickets for their remaining schedule.

Koppelman does not seem overly alarmed, though he’s never happy when he sees empty seats. He noted that the team is coping with an odd home schedule — two night games, a 4:30 p.m. game two days before Christmas and the season closer on New Year’s Eve. He added that the rise of the secondary ticket market has left even the best teams in the league scrambling to unload single-game seats.

“We’ve done a lot of research on people coming and not coming to games,” he said. “And at the end of the day, very rarely can we find, ‘Oh, here’s the reason.’ There’s a million factors.”

He hears fan dissatisfaction with the team’s performance. Of course he does. But that, too, he takes in stride. “This whole league is built for ups and downs,” he said. “We’ve set the bar high, and people are just going to have to ride out the down period, if we’re even in a down period. We still could make the playoffs this year. … But that’s part of life in the NFL.”

The Ravens’ core business remains strong, he said, with fans continuing to pay $25 a year to remain on a waiting list for permanent seat licenses, which amount to house purchases within the stadium. The team’s PSL base stands at 25,000 accounts with the maximum of 65,500 season tickets all spoken for.

Koppelman, 50, was one of the first five people hired when the former Cleveland Browns set up shop in their new city. He’s sold tickets through the lowest lows and highest highs of Baltimore’s second chapter with the NFL.

He’s been doing it long enough that his job feels fairly routine. But when he backs up even a half step, he can’t help but gush at some of the moments he’s witnessed up close. Whether cradling the franchise’s first Lombardi Trophy on the team bus after Super Bowl XXXV or soaking up the euphoria in the locker room after Joe Flacco’s miracle playoff heave in Denver, he’s lived a fantasy life for a kid who grew up devoted to Baltimore sports.

He has two Super Bowl rings for heaven’s sake.

It’s quite something for a guy who wasn’t allowed to play sports (other than baseball) in school because of a lifelong heart condition. Koppelman — tall and slender, with a gentle handshake — jokes that he nonetheless accumulated more varsity letters than any student in the history of St. Paul’s, because if he couldn’t play on the teams, he would manage equipment for all of them.

“I was just so drawn to sports,” he said. “I always wanted to be part of a team, even if I have this weird role that’s way far away from the field.”

Outside of school, he persuaded his mother to buy a full 81-game season-ticket plan for the Orioles, and he later sold seats for his favorite club during summers home from Guilford College, where he studied sports management.

He began working full time in the Orioles ticket office the summer before the club moved from Memorial Stadium to Camden Yards. Koppelman can speak to the ardor of the Baltimore sports fan not only because he was one but because he briefly left town to work for the San Diego Padres in the mid-1990s. Tony Gwynn aside, that club was better known for allowing Roseanne Barr to butcher the national anthem before a game than for anything it did on the field.

“I could not have gone to a worse situation as far as fans caring,” Koppelman said.

When he came back to Baltimore in the spring of 1996 to begin selling a new football team to his hometown, he encountered a passion that had never really died in the 12 years since the Colts had fled.

“You had a small element of fans who were like, ‘This isn’t the Colts. It’s never going to be the Colts,’” he said. “But there was a strong sense of, ‘Hey, we want to be involved in this.’”

He recalls many late nights at the team’s offices in St. Paul Place, trying to scare up a season-ticket base for a team that was going to begin play just three months later.

“It was one of those things where you look back on it and you’re not 100 percent sure you’d want to do it again,” he said. “But there are so many great memories of the camaraderie, just figuring out how to get everything done.”

He currently works on the ground floor at the stadium. But when he goes to the team’s headquarters in Owings Mills, he sits at a desk once used by Art Modell. His wife, Reba, works in the same office as the team’s director of finance. All fitting for a Ravens lifer.

Koppelman has helped set up the stadium and sell tickets for everything from the Army-Navy game to a Metallica concert. Those events are nerve-racking, yet fun to pull off. But he feels most at home conducting business with people who love the Ravens, even in these relative down times.

“We’re going to hear the good and the bad,” he said. “That’s part of why it works here — the passion. The worst thing that could happen is if people don’t care.”

childs.walker@baltsun.com

twitter.com/ChildsWalker

Copyright © 2017, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad