Pepper Rodgers is no stranger to the hard sell and Memphis, Tenn.
Once, as coach of the U.S. Football League's Showboats in the mid-1980s, he sold springtime football as a viable alternative to the NFL. A decade later in a similar role, he pitched Mad Dogs and the Canadian Football League to the discerning populace in western Tennessee.
Now, though, comes the most chilling and challenging sales job of Rodgers' football life.
He is trying to promote the Tennessee Oilers in the city the NFL spurned four years ago in expansion. He's trying to fill the Liberty Bowl's 62,380 seats against the knowledge this is strictly a short-term, albeit expensive, arrangement.
After two decades of lusting for an NFL team, it has come to this in Memphis: The city is baby-sitting the Oilers for two years until the team's new stadium in Nashville can be completed.
And this: On Sunday against the Ravens, in only their second home game in Tennessee, the Oilers are expecting -- well, hoping for -- a crowd of 20,000. That's if they get a brisk walk-up sale.
Make no mistake, Memphians are not thrilled with their role in the Texas two-step out of Houston.
"I don't think it's the Oilers that people are mad at," Rodgers said. "I think it's the NFL more than anything."
Rodgers, 65, defines his role with the Oilers as trouble-shooter in Memphis. So far, the Oilers have kept him busy with a scorching trail of brush fires.
Like the one this week, when Oilers defensive linemen Josh Evans and Anthony Cook were scheduled to attend a news conference in Memphis to promote Sunday's game. But Monday's practice ran long, and Evans and Cook missed their flight out of Nashville. Not surprisingly, news spots with Rodgers have gone past stale in Memphis.
"We have no presence here," he said of the Oilers. "It is so hard. They don't want to hear me in Memphis, they want to hear the players."
The Oilers' road to Tennessee is littered with oversights, poor calculations and terrible judgment. A sampling of their mistakes: When Oilers owner Bud Adams reached a two-year agreement to play regular-season games in the Liberty Bowl, he requested travel expenses to take the team back and forth from Nashville. ** Only he asked that those expenses be paid by the folks in Memphis. This affront was not well-received, and after a severe backlash, Adams withdrew his request.
Adams initially said he would change the Oilers' name and let Tennessee fans choose a new one. But then he changed his mind on changing the name, and that spawned more controversy.
In a college market that supported the USFL and CFL in varying degrees, the Oilers implemented the second-highest increase in average ticket price in the NFL. Their average ticket jumped 28.8 percent to $40.36, second only to the Washington Redskins' increase of 48.3 percent to $52.92, according to the Team Marketing Report, a Chicago newsletter.
Combine all that with the late start -- the Oilers weren't able to sell tickets until late June after their move -- and it's not hard to see there would be problems.
Yet, incredibly, the team had no inkling of the resentment of the NFL that awaited it in Memphis. This is a city that jumped through NFL hoops for two decades, playing host to 14 exhibition games during that time, in an attempt to get an expansion team, only to be rejected twice.
Don MacLachlan, the Oilers' senior vice president whose duties recently were expanded to include overseeing the Memphis operations, said no one from the league cautioned Adams that playing games in a city spurned during expansion might not be a good idea.
"No [they didn't]," MacLachlan said, "and I guess some of our marketing research shows a lot of avid football fans still in Memphis and surrounding communities. By the time we were able to hit the ground running and sell tickets, a lot of people had committed to college games and weren't able to commit to season tickets.
"We knew the situation we were in in regard to Memphis [not] getting an expansion team. I don't think there was any way we could gauge what was going to transpire, or what has transpired."
Even though the team has played well in splitting two overtime games, ticket sales have been nothing short of disastrous. A crowd of 30,171 turned out for the Oilers' Tennessee debut on Aug. 31, a rousing 24-21 victory against the Oakland Raiders. Projections were for crowds of between 50,000 and 55,000.
Only 10,000 season tickets have been sold, and only 4,000 of those went to Nashville fans willing to make the three-hour-plus drive to Memphis.
Additionally, only 27 of the Liberty Bowl's 40 skyboxes were sold. Clearly, skybox revenue was one of the big reasons Adams chose to play in Memphis rather than at Vanderbilt University in Nashville.
Even Nashville has been shockingly lukewarm to the Oilers' arrival. In two preseason games at Vanderbilt, the Oilers drew an average of 23,065 fans. Television ratings for the Oilers' 16-13 loss at Miami in Week 2 were modest, too. The team had a 13.2 rating with a 31 share in Nashville, and an 11.0/21 in Memphis.
The frustration is beginning to surface with a team that believed it had left apathy behind in Houston (the Oilers averaged 31,825 fans in last year's lame-duck season). After winning the home opener, running back Eddie George said he was puzzled by the low turnout in Memphis.
"I'm not a politician, I'm a ballplayer," he said. "We're the Tennessee Oilers. We represent the whole state of Tennessee, not just Nashville."
In a conference call with Baltimore reporters this week, George's frustration became more apparent.
"I think Jeff [Fisher] is a great coach and a great motivator," George said. "He's done a great job of getting us together in the midst of all this madness the last year or so.
"This is only temporary. It will not happen the next five, six years. Hopefully not."
Said Fisher: "If anyone followed Memphis, they would understand their plight. To a certain extent, there is some frustration. We feel like in anything, winning should bring people around."
Ross Bartow, executive director of the newly created Memphis Sports Authority, cited ticket prices and the Oilers' request for travel expenses as factors contributing to the slow start. But the biggest problem, he said, was the city's pain over not getting an expansion team.
"I found it surprising just how deep the NFL scars were in this city," Bartow said. "It surprised people who have been here all their lives."
R. C. Johnson, athletic director at the University of Memphis, shares the Liberty Bowl with the Oilers. The Tigers averaged 38,000 fans last year.
"My theory is, if it was the Dallas Cowboys here, I think the [stadium] would be full," Johnson said. "Or the [San Francisco] 49ers. That would supersede all the other stuff. There's not a whole lot of loyalty to the Oilers to begin with, not a lot of magnetism to them."
There will be plenty of competition for Memphis' entertainment dollar this weekend, though. The Tigers play Minnesota tomorrow night, and the Mid-South Fair at the fairgrounds runs through the weekend.
Even though only some 3,000 non-season ticket holders have purchased tickets for the NFL game, the Ravens won't have to take a hit in their share of the visitor's gate receipts. Ravens spokesman Kevin Byrne said that Adams has a guarantee in place for visiting teams until the Oilers move to Nashville.
Despite the ominous start, the Oilers refuse to panic.
"We have a two-year agreement with the Liberty Bowl," MacLachlan said. "I would say it's not a true barometer for the entire season. We'll let a little more time go on to evaluate things, rather than base it on two games early in the year."
Next for Ravens
Opponent: Tennessee Oilers
Site: Liberty Bowl, Memphis, Tenn.
When: 1 p.m. Sunday
TV/Radio: Ch. 11/WJFK (1300 AM), WLIF (101.9 FM)
Line: Oilers by 3 1/2
Oilers at a glance
Last game: Lost to Miami, 16-13, in overtime on Sept. 7.
Last meeting against
Ravens: Houston won, 24-21, on Dec. 22, 1996, at Memorial Stadium.
Who's hot: Running back Eddie George has rushed for 322 yards on 58 carries (5.6 average). Wide receiver Chris Sanders has averaged 21.8 yards on his five receptions.
Who's not: Quarterback Steve McNair has thrown for only 291 yards and one touchdown. Punter Reggie Roby's average of 38.9 yards is last in the AFC.
Pub Date: 9/19/97