The Baltimore Stallions lead the Canadian Football League's Southern Division and look poised to return to the Grey Cup, a year after reaching the championship game in their inaugural season.
But a new season of sorts will begin for Baltimore with tonight's game against the visiting Birmingham Barracudas. Starting tonight, the Stallions will play five of their last seven regular-season games at Memorial Stadium.
The players welcome that home-field advantage. And the same goes for the Stallions' front office, which is looking at the next two months as a critical period that will dictate the franchise's financial health for 1995.
Baltimore owner Jim Speros believes his team is a quality product, but the question looming in his mind is how many fans will come to see it this fall.
Many stayed away this summer, a situation that has Speros feeling anxious after four home games. Baltimore is still the top draw in the CFL, with an average attendance of 30,183. Yet, that marks a 19.2 percent decrease from last year's full-season average of 37,348.
"Sure, I'm disappointed in the attendance. I need those 7,000 fans to be successful," Speros said. "Overall, everything else is up this year. Our corporate sponsorship is up by about 30 percent. Our concessions and merchandise sales are up. Our TV ratings are up, and attendance in the league is up. I would hope we would get our average attendance up over these last two months."
Otherwise, Speros said, the team could be staring at a loss of about $1 million. In its first season, the team posted a $1.1 million deficit, which Speros attributed primarily to the start-up costs that ate up much of his $8 million in expenses.
The week before training camp opened in May, Speros talked about how tough the second CFL season might be in Baltimore. Last year, fans angry at the NFL for snubbing Baltimore in its expansion derby and for fighting Speros over the use of the name "Colts" turned out in droves to vent their anger. A midsummer baseball strike didn't hurt attendance. And pro football was back in the city for the first time in 11 years.
There would be no such luxuries the second time around. This year, three-down football starting in the hot summer months would have to survive on its own.
Speros figures the attendance problems started when the CFL, mired in the drawn-out dispersal of the now-defunct Las Vegas Posse last spring, released its 1995 schedule in late April -- barely two months before the season opener. Speros feared the late release would hurt his season-ticket base, which numbered about 25,000 for last season.
This season, the Stallions' season-ticket base stands at 17,800.
"People can only wait around so long before they start making summer plans," Speros said.
On top of that, the Stallions were saddled with a road-heavy schedule for the first half of the season. Six of Baltimore's first nine games were away. During one stretch, three weeks passed between games at Memorial Stadium. It's hard to attract new fans when you're never home to give the fans a glimpse of your product.
Another reason for the season-ticket sales drop is that, before the opener, fans had only one choice. Buy the full, 10-game package or no package at all. The front office is addressing that shortcoming now, having offered last month a "Pick 6" deal. Under that plan, fans were able to purchase tickets to any six of the remaining eight games.
Next year, the Stallions will offer a variety of season-ticket plans.
"We still don't have a real pulse on our fan base, but the 18-35 age market is the one we've got to concentrate on," said E. J. Narcise, the team's vice president of business operations.
"We're going to be conducting fan surveys throughout October. We want to know fans' preferences for game times, game days, weeknight games in the summer, things like that."
For now, the plan is for a late-season attendance recovery. Speros likes the scenario he sees. The weather is cooling off, the Stallions are a hot team and they'll be spending an awful lot of time at home.
Besides the regular season, Baltimore stands a good chance of earning the home-field advantage for the first two rounds of the playoffs.
As of yesterday, about 27,000 tickets had been sold for tonight's game with Birmingham. With cooperation from the weather, Speros believes strong walk-up ticket sales will produce Baltimore's best crowd of the season.
"In my original five-year plan, I didn't expect to make money until our third year. Breaking even in the second year was my goal," Speros said. "If we can get most of those 7,000 fans back, we'll break even.
"We're 8-3, we're in first place and we've got our best football ahead of us, on and off the field."
A look at the Stallions' home attendance for their first four games last year and this season:
1994 ............ ...... 1995
Calgary ..... 39,247 ... San Antonio .. 31,016
Shreveport .. 31,172 ... Winnipeg ..... 30,641
Hamilton .... 37,231 ... Memphis ...... 31,221
Toronto ..... 41,155 ... Toronto ...... 27,853
Total ...... 148,805 ... Total ....... 120,731
Average ..... 37,201 ... Average ...... 30,183
Birmingham (6-4) at Stallions (8-3)
Site: Memorial Stadium
When: 7:30 tonight
TV/Radio: HTS tape delay, tomorrow, 8 p.m./WJFK
* (1300 AM), WGRX (100.7 FM)