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CFLs' ingenuity put on line to get game going here


Walking into Memorial Stadium for the CFL football game the other night, an old friend who was once a big fan of the NFL Colts called out to me.

"Do you think this league's gonna go here?" he asked.

"What do you mean, gonna go?" I said. "Look around you. It's going."

As we spoke, people were pouring through the turnstiles. Thousands upon thousands of them.

That's what's been happening every time Baltimore's expansion Canadian Football League team has taken the oversized playing field on 33rd Street.

Three times the team has played here, and each time the turnout has exceeded what most expected.

There were 28,000-plus for the exhibition game with Winnipeg, the team Baltimore plays tonight in Manitoba.

There were 39,000-plus for the home league opener against Doug Flutie and Calgary, and 31,000-plus for last Saturday night's win over Shreveport.

For three games played on sweltering mid-summer nights, a Baltimore team of unknown players playing with some strange rules has drawn roughly 100,000 customers. Baltimore is easily the best drawing team in the league.

Attendance figures don't tell the whole story. TV ratings are almost surprisingly good.

Channel 2's telecast of last week's game started with an 8.0 share, but in the final 45 minutes the broadcast had shares of 10.1, 9.7 and 10.1.

That approaches the 12 to 14 share AFC games get in Baltimore during the NFL regular season.

A 10.1 share means that in addition to the 30,000-plus at Memorial Stadium another 100,000 are watching on TV.

Baltimoreans tend to think of the NFL Colts and their 56 straight home sellouts. That was early on.

In their last five years here, 1979 through 1983, the Bob Irsay-owned Colts drew in the low to mid-30,000's for games against AFC East opponents at the Stadium. The last Colts exhibition game played here drew just over 20,000 -- less than the CFLs are drawing now.

This modest success story is drawing national attention. The July 25 Sports Illustrated has a two-page spread on the local CFL team, saying it has "caught the city's fancy."

There have been people at the CFL games at the Stadium who have been thrilled just to see the old place again, to see the field where John and Raymond and Lenny and Gino and Artie and Jim Parker once starred for the best football team anywhere.

Anti-NFL feelings and nostalgic yearnings don't fully explain the CFL's acceptance here.

You have to give owner Jim Speros some credit. He has made some smart moves.

He could have hired a coach with a big NFL name. Raymond Berry interviewed for the Baltimore job. So did former NFL quarterback Jerry Rhome.

Speros is wise for his 35 years. He knew that ex-Colt Berry, who coached the New England Patriots in their only Super Bowl appearance, would be embraced here. He knew Rhome was a name, sort of.

But Speros also knew it was even more important that the team win. To that end, he hired Don Matthews, an unknown here, who had been a successful coach in the CFL.

Look at the standings at this early point in the season: The first-place team in the Eastern Division with a 2-1 record is the one with no name, the Baltimore whatevers.

That's another smart thing Speros did. He decided to fight for the use of the name Colts.

"The only name that's gonna play in this town is Colts," insists The Big Wheel, superfan Len Burrier.

He's probably right, but seeking alternatives has provided extra publicity for the CFLs.

Whenever a talk-show host feels lazy, he can ask his listeners what name they'd like our CFL team to have if they can't have Colts. Then follows the callers' non-stop electioneering for Steeds, Stallions, Rockets, Bays, Koltz, Coats and so on.

The fans get to express themselves. The CFL gets the notoriety. The host has a piece of cake hour. Everybody wins.

Speros is pitching to bring the Grey Cup, the CFL's Super Bowl, to Baltimore in 1996.

Local people could get into a Grey Cup game with Baltimore playing for the league championship.

But, say, Edmonton vs. Winnipeg (last year's matchup) in Baltimore? I'm not so sure.

Speros doesn't worry about such negatives. He thinks Baltimore will be good enough to get to the Grey Cup by then.

You have to hand it to the guy. Though he doesn't have truly deep pockets, he forges ahead.

From the beginning, he has believed this thing would "go" here. He ignored the doubters, just as pioneers through history ignored them.

You have to be a Jim Speros kind of man to succeed at something like this.

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