The Baltimore Ravens will probably never be "America's Team," as the Dallas Cowboys came to be known in the 1970s, thanks to their frequent appearances in nationally televised games.
But with the Ravens appearing in prime-time matchups three of the first four weeks of the NFL season — starting with tonight's season opener of ESPN's "Monday Night Football" — no team will have a higher national profile during the first month of NFL play. What makes that all the more remarkable is that the defending AFC North champs are a small-market franchise in a world where media market size largely determines which teams are featured in night-time, national TV games.
It is a fitting tribute to the late Art Modell that the Ravens tonight will launch the 43rd season of the storied "Monday Night Football" franchise with a home-game opening-night showcase that the team has never enjoyed. Modell, who died Thursday, drove the marriage of the NFL and ABC's Monday nights in 1970 when he owned the Cleveland Browns. And when he came to Baltimore, he helped lay a foundation that would make his new Ravens particularly prime-time friendly despite the city lagging behind Top 20 TV markets.
"As a producer, you always want the biggest audience, so, of course, you're aware of market size," says Jay Rothman, producer of "Monday Night Football," talking about the teams that are most attractive to broadcasters. But he lays out the case for Baltimore as a prime-time TV town:
"Baltimore isn't New York or Dallas. But Baltimore has other things working for it from larger-than-life, move-the-meter guys like Ray Lewis to a great stadium for night games filled by passionate fans," he says. "It's built so that the camera positions and angles we get are outstanding, and because the crowd is so close to the field, it's intimate, colorful and electric. We love coming to Baltimore."
The camera angles and crowd closeness are not accidents. When M&T; Bank Stadium was being designed in 1997, the Ravens, then owned by Modell, brought in network producers to help create a space ideal for TV's lens, according to Ravens President Dick Cass.
"While the stadium was under construction, the Ravens invited a couple of network producers to come to Baltimore and select camera angles and tell us where we should put the camera baskets, and that's where we put them," Cass says. "Who would know better how to build a stadium that would be best for TV than the people who produce the telecasts?"
One of the producers was Fred Gaudelli, who at the time was doing "Monday Night Football" for ESPN. He is now executive producer of NBC's "Sunday Night Football," the highest-rated prime-time show on television with an average weekly audience of more than 20 million viewers.
The Ravens are scheduled to play in NBC's Sunday night showcase Sept. 23 against the New England Patriots, and then again on Nov. 18 against the Pittsburgh Steelers. With flex scheduling, which allows the NFL and NBC to choose prime-time games late in the season, it is likely the Ravens will have at least one more showcase appearance on NBC in December.
"The stadium is fantastic for television. There's no question about it," Gaudelli says. "It truly is state of the art. And the organization itself goes out of its way to make it easy for the broadcasters. Those are simple facts."
State of the art includes giant scoreboards in both end zones that network producers "love to play with," according to Rothman, as they offer viewers screens within screens as windows into the M&T; Bank Stadium gameday experience. It also includes the kind of rigging and guide-wire placement that will allow "Monday Night Football" to use its new Spidercam technology to offer viewers overhead shots from end zone to end zone, sideline to sideline and up into the stands.
The TV producers Modell invited to Baltimore in 1997 urged the team to put its fans as close to the field as possible to create a greater sense of onscreen intensity — as opposed to the situation in some older parks that had been built for baseball. In cities such as San Diego and Oakland, distance between the stands and parts of the playing field meant that producers could not get tight shots that included players and fans.
"Baltimore fans are passionate, and that's a big factor, too, in making a Ravens game look good on television," Gaudelli says. "There's not an empty seat in the stadium, and they stay until the end. All those things, you know, really make for a good television environment. What you want in a prime-time game is an energized atmosphere, and Baltimore truly has that."
But, in the end, neither the best camera angles in the world nor the most rabid fans would bring the networks to Baltimore if the team weren't a winner.
"The fact that they've been to the playoffs every single year that John Harbaugh has been the coach and they came so close to going to the Super Bowl last year — that's the bottom line for me," Gaudelli says.
Mike Tirico, who will call the play-by-play in tonight's game for ESPN, says the Ravens are "an outstanding TV team for two reasons: Ray Lewis and Ed Reed."
"It's very rare that defensive players become the face of the franchise for multiple years in this era of the NFL, and they have certainly done that," he says. "And it's rare that defensive players bring people to the TV. When you're promoting a game, usually you're promoting the quarterback or wide receiver. But with the Ravens, you promote their defense. ...
"And in the team sports I've been around for the last 10 years, it's hard to find an individual whose personality imprint has become the calling card of the team like Ray Lewis has with the Baltimore Ravens."
No player — not even Deion "Prime Time" Sanders or "Broadway" Joe Namath — brought the combination of football skill and larger-than-life TV persona to the modern game the way Lewis has, producers and analysts say. From his fiery pre-game talks to his introductory dances, Lewis seems to live at the intersection of football as sport and prime-time entertainment.
"Ray Lewis is the star of stars," says Bardia Shah-Rais, senior producer at the NFL Network. "We like to say in the office here that I'd pay to watch Ray Lewis play football, but I'd also pay to watch him read the phone book, because he's just such a charismatic guy." (The Ravens will play the Cleveland Browns in prime time on the NFL Network Sept. 27.)
Shah-Rais, who produced the pre-game, post-game and halftime shows when the Ravens played the San Francisco 49er's last Thanksgiving, says, the Ravens are "a compelling group of guys who get what it takes to make good television."
Owner Steve Bisciotti campaigned to get the Ravens on tonight's marquee event, announcing in June that he was going to "fight like hell" to get the Ravens a home game on Monday Night Football.
"I know from visiting with the owner, Steve Bisciotti, at the owners' meetings the last couple of years, there's been a great desire to have Monday Night Football back [in Baltimore]," Tirico says.
"I don't believe the NFL intentionally kept us from having Monday night home games," Bisciotti said last week. "They want us on national television. That's why we're featured often. We're a good team with some standout players — some with names known to every NFL fan in the nation. ... Once we pointed out that it had been a while since we were home for a Monday nighter and had played so many consecutive on the road, they responded. Really, I think all we had to do is point it out to the league."
Like his predecessor, Modell, Bisciotti gets the larger importance of more than 10 million viewers tuning into a night-time event that makes downtown Baltimore sparkle and shine with TV lights and the energy of 60,000 fans.
"I love having a Monday night game at M&T;," Bisciotti said. "We grew up watching Monday Night Football. It's the only game in the league that day. What's better than having the blimp flying over the stadium, the crowd fired up and the whole world watching Baltimore, the Inner Harbor and the Ravens? It's fantastic. It adds something special to the game, and our players and fans know that."
Recent tweets from Baltimore Sun media and television critic David Zurawik: