Giving away what he could sell, which represents an ancient contradiction in the marketplace, is a roll of the dice for Jim Speros and the Baltimore franchise in the Canadian Football League. It's all about television. Obviously, the owner of the first-year team believes by sampling the audience it will come back for more -- and be willing to make a later investment in buying tickets at the box office.
The idea of televising home games doesn't fit the conventional test pattern. TV is an enormous tool for exposing a new entity but established precedent is to show the team playing on the road with the hope the presentation makes such an enticing impression it will attract paying customers to the next kickoff.
That's how the National Football League got where it is today, a policy established by the late commissioner, Bert Bell, who was opposed to home television unless the game was sold out in advance. Speros, in only his team's second home appearance, had WMAR-TV air the game with the Shreveport Pirates -- which, after a flat opening half, turned into an entertaining show.
It appears Speros' gamble paid off. "I've heard only compliments," he said, which referred to the on-air work of Scott Garceau, Keith Mills and Tom Matte, plus the technical aspects of the production. WMAR also reported positive reaction.
In Speros' deal with the station, four more games will be on TV, including home dates against the Toronto Argonauts and Sacramento Gold Miners. The paid attendance of 31,172 at Memorial Stadium was a pleasant surprise. This coincided with a highly complimentary story, written by Michael Farber for a national readership in Sports Illustrated about Baltimore and the CFL.
"To have this kind of a turnout with a local telecast and the chance of rain forecast means Baltimore has given a tremendous endorsement to the CFL," said E. J. Narcise, the director of field operations. "Just think of the fans watching from Ocean City and other vacation places."
The CFL public address announcer gave the crowd the result of the Orioles' game, which is more than the Orioles provided the Camden Yards spectators when the Baltimore football team was opening its schedule in Toronto on July 7. The team also introduced a live horse as a mascot. He's named "Loudy," after the Colts' most faithful fan, the late Hurst Loudenslager.
This is no pony. It's a 13-year-old gelding who raced as the "Bernsville Kid" on Maryland tracks before bowing his tendons. He's owned by Bernie Urban and ridden by his daughter, Erica. The presence of "Loudy" was made possible because Nationwide Insurance provided coverage gratis for the rider and spectators in case of a mishap.
"We didn't want to see the mascot idea dropped," explained John Gallup, a Baltimore agent for the company. Meanwhile, the Colts' Band was playing with usual gusto. The musicians were given air-cooled quarters to use before the game, unlike last week, plus food and drink.
Speros, who has a packed agenda, has corrected mistakes and fielded suggestions. One thing he wants didn't happen. It pertains to introductions on the PA that the name of the player and his respective college be used. Speros realizes the value that can come from such identifications since the makeup of the teams are generally unknown.
What's more essential is that the scoreboard needs to be updated electronically. Letters and numbers aren't "printing," which turns the messages into guessing games of trying to fill in the blanks. It's irritating to the public.
A visit from Norfolk sports columnist Bob Molinaro of the Virginian-Pilot, a Baltimorean who grew up watching the Colts, provided a personalized view on the proceedings.
"The crowd count is promising," he said. "I just hope when the fans' anger against the NFL runs its course the support will build and not diminish. The NFL doesn't realize it, but getting the fans to stop calling the team Colts is about as unlikely as draining all the crabs out of Chesapeake Bay."
Speros' effort to televise a home game (only the team's second) is a calculated risk but the impression is he was a winner both ways -- at the gate and in creating an interest from fans who never saw the CFL and now may buy a ticket.