During a rally at Towson Town Center, fans were optimistic about the Ravens' 2016 season. (Kenneth K. Lam/Baltimore Sun video)
If the grass looks greener to fans at M&T Bank Stadium when the Ravens season opens Sunday, it's not just because the artificial turf has been replaced with more than 50,000 square feet of pristine, natural grass.
Eight months after a losing season marked by injuries to key stars and conspicuously empty purple seats, the new playing field stands as an apt metaphor for a fan base with a fresh outlook, based partly on the team's history of rebounding from disappointment.
Many fans know the Ravens have not suffered consecutive losing seasons since 1996-1998, the team's first three seasons in Baltimore, and haven't missed the playoffs in two straight years since 2004-2005. Last year's record was 5-11, putting this team squarely on schedule — at least in theory — for a return to winning form.
"I think they expect us to turn it around," Ravens President Dick Cass said of the fans Thursday. "At the end of the season, we had more no-shows than we'd had in previous years. That concerned us, and I think that's attributable to our performance on the field as much as anything. It makes us go back and look at what we're doing on game day and what can we do better, something other than just on-field performance."
The club is planning a renovation of the 18-year-old, 71,000-seat stadium, and hopes to announce details this fall, Cass said.
"We know we have to keep our stadium up to date and fresh," he said. "I don't want to share the plans because we're working through it all with the Maryland Stadium Authority."
Michael J. Frenz, the authority's executive director, was unavailable for comment, a spokeswoman said.
Already completed for the opener against the Buffalo Bills is a new Under Armour store inside Gate D, off the main concourse, offering Ravens gear for men, women and kids. About 3,000 game-day workers — including ushers, concessions workers, parking lot attendants and security personnel — received customer service training during the offseason from the Disney Institute, a training arm of the Walt Disney Co.
"We're hoping that the fans will notice some difference in how the staff interacts with the fans on game day," Cass said.
But the club understands the best game-day experience is a win.
Last year's team endured season-ending injuries to first-round draft pick Breshad Perriman during training camp, to defensive star Terrell Suggs in the opener and to quarterback Joe Flacco in Game 10. With the Ravens out of playoff contention, thousands of Steelers fans bought tickets on the secondary market, appearing to make up at least a third of the sellout crowd of 71,261 at the season's final game of the season at M&T Bank Stadium — a Baltimore victory — on Dec. 27.
"Football is a rough game, and injuries are going to happen," said Ravens season-ticket holder Robert Harris, 48, who has 10 personal seat licenses and whose basement features six televisions for football viewing and has his stadium section number — 541 — painted on the wall.
He and his brother are familiar to many fans from their old bread truck, which is painted purple and bears images of a cartoon character performing an unsavory act on the helmets of Ravens' division opponents.
Harris, a construction foreman from New Freedom, Pa., considers last season an aberration. This year, he said, "The offensive line is looking pretty good. I'm an old-school guy. I like the power running game. I'm the kind of fan that I always look for the positive."
Despite last season's troubles, the season-ticket renewal percentage remains over 99 percent, according to Cass.
"We're still doing extremely well in terms of ticket sales, suite sales and sponsorship sales," he said.
In May, the team installed the new field, trucking in sod from a North Carolina farm. The players "wanted real grass put back in our stadium," head groundskeeper Don Follett said at the time. The stadium had previously had artificial turf since 2002.
Before last season, the club said it spent more than $5 million to improve stadium Wi-Fi access for fans.
The Ravens endured a major public-relations blow in 2014 when a hotel surveillance camera video showed running back Ray Rice punching his then-fiancee in the face. Rice has been out of football ever since. But the Ravens' popularity endured.
The team's relationship with fans has been aided by stability, Cass said. General manager Ozzie Newsome has been in the front office since the team's arrival in Baltimore in 1996. John Harbaugh has been head coach since 2008.
"The fans are very resilient, just like the players," said retired Ravens offensive lineman Jonathan Ogden, a Hall of Famer who has remained in the area and will mingle with fans at Horseshoe Casino Baltimore during select Monday nights this season. "It's a very well-educated fan base.
"They understand you lose a Terrell Suggs, then all of a sudden Flacco goes down," Ogden said. "It kind of snowballed on them a little bit last season."
Despite the first losing season since 2007, the team's network of fan clubs hasn't seen membership drops.
"We've gotten some more interest from people," said Jim McCain of Arbutus, council president of the Baltimore Ravens Roosts.
The Evening Sun Newsletter
Get your evening news in your e-mail inbox. Get all the top news and sports from the baltimoresun.com.
"As fans, you have to understand you can't win it every year," said McCain, 48, supervisor for an electrical supply distributor. "You're not a fan if you're a fair-weather fan. You're just not. The excitement is there to see the team back healthy again."
Attendance at the local Ravens Roost meetings in Bel Air have picked up in anticipation of a new season, said Don Schoppert, 48, the local club's president. Participation had slipped a little last season, said Schoppert, whose dogs are named Flacco and Tucker after the Ravens quarterback and kicker Justin Tucker.
"I'm pumped for the season," Schoppert said. "I don't have season tickets. But I have two 65-inch TVs and a 55-inch TV.