How could this happen?
In virgin NFL territory?
In a sprawling two-state market?
In the demographically correct Southeast?
The Panthers, one of a half-dozen NFL teams that belong in Baltimore, drew a "crowd" of only 54,060 to a stadium that seats 76,000.
A mere 21,940 short, with NFL commissioner Paul "The Sun King" Tagliabue in attendance, ready to work on his tan.
He had plenty of room to spread out, anyway.
The official NFL explanation for the opening-day fiasco is that the Panthers are playing 145 miles from Charlotte, their home starting next season, provided they don't move first.
"A unique situation," the Sun King called it, because many fans had to drive three hours to South Carolina.
Aw, can't their tushies take it?
And we all thought Jacksonville was a joke.
Clemson is as far from Charlotte as Ocean City is from Baltimore. This might sound like heresy to the Sun King, but a Baltimore team could have sold out down the ocean in a hurricane, not to mention Memorial Stadium while Son of Camden Yards was under construction.
It also could have sold out in Romney, W.Va., Bedford, Pa., or any other place approximately 150 miles from Camden Yards -- including those inaccessible by automobile.
Thirty-thousand a game for the cockamamie CFL.
Can't drive to Clemson? All we kept hearing from the Carolina expansion committee is that 9.6 million people live within a 150-mile radius of Charlotte.
"We have an outstanding regional market where football fans will get in their cars and drive to see the games," owner Jerry Richardson said in 1991.
Evidently, their licenses expired.
Or, maybe they're getting ready for basketball.
They sure aren't buying Panthers tickets, or watching their beloved 0-3 squad on TV.
In the NFL, no sellout means blackout, although the Sun King, true to form, considered changing the rules for Charlotte.
No one watches the Panthers on the road, either.
And Baltimore hates the Redskins, remember?
"We just have to deal with a temporary situation," the Sun King sighed.
Wrong again, Georgetown-breath.
If memory serves correct -- and who can forget the details of the NFL's expansion charade? -- Carolina was the only contender that lacked a publicly funded stadium.
The new stadium is a house of cards built on permanent-seat licenses. Richardson was $30 million short when NationsBank chairman Hugh McColl bailed him out, guaranteeing half that total.
What happens next year, when the Panthers are coming off a 1-15 season? Or the year after that, when they're still not very good?
Mercifully, the Panthers are off this week, so they'll be spared any further embarrassment. Their expansion twins in Jacksonville also are 0-3, while the St. Louis Rams are 3-0.
Obviously, stealing a team was the way to go.
And so, another season passes, Year 12 without the Colts. People from out of town always ask, which NFL team does Baltimore like? The better question is, which ones don't we hate?
This week's Baltimore Bowl is Redskins-Buccaneers.
Cooke vs. Glazer.
At this point, having been stiffed by half the league, there's only one man Baltimore can rally behind, only one team worthy of the city's support.
That would be Jerry "Nike" Jones and the Dallas "Pepsi" Cowboys.
For one thing, Jones supported a four-team expansion that likely would have resulted in Baltimore getting a team.
For another, he's Public Enemy No. 1 for the NFL, and therefore for Tagliabue, which only adds to his Charm City allure.
The NFL owners filed a $300 million suit against Jones yesterday and will meet today in Atlanta to discuss him further. He reportedly is set to respond by announcing a new deal with American Express.
As far as anyone can tell, he's guilty of being a capitalist, and little else.
He wants to make money. Of course, he's unpopular.
This is the league that chose empty seats in Carolina over untold millions in Baltimore.