Philly stands out in a crowd Attendance: Its neighbor to the north shows Baltimore a thing or two about backing minor-league sports in a major-league city.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

PHILADELPHIA -- It is a typical weekend on South Broad Street, and Philadelphia's sporting heart is showing.

Four of the city's eight professional teams are playing within two blocks of each other, and together they draw 75,617 fans into the complex that includes the CoreStates Center, the CoreStates Spectrum and Veterans Stadium. A full one-third of those fans came not to see the Phillies, Flyers, 76ers or Eagles, but the American Hockey League Phantoms and the National Lacrosse League Wings.

Those same Wings were in Baltimore on April 28, playing the Thunder in the NLL finals. The game drew 3,137.

What does Philadelphia have that Baltimore doesn't?

Fans who come out for non-mainstream sports, for one thing.

The AHL Phantoms averaged 11,809 this season, the NLL Wings 13,500 and the Kixx of the National Professional Soccer League 9,000.

Each of those totals led its respective league, and the Phantoms' numbers broke the AHL record that dated to the 1971-72 Boston Braves.

Anet Baghdasarian is a native Philadelphian. She worked as an assistant box office manager for the 76ers for eight years before becoming director of ticket operations for Philadelphia's newest team, the Rage of the American Basketball League. Through the years, she has developed a definite opinion on why Philadelphians support sports on all levels.

"It's a physical thing," she said. "It's a town of laborers who work hard all week, and when it's time to relax, they go to sports events and they support teams as long as the team works hard."

In Baltimore, six versions of minor-league hockey have come and gone because of a lack of support. In Baltimore, the NPSL Spirit and the Major Soccer League Blast wound up begging for season-ticket buyers. In Baltimore, when the NLL Thunder played the Wings in that championship final last week, more than half of the crowd at the Baltimore Arena was Philadelphia fans.

"I think they simply don't advertise enough," said Thunder fan Tony Bode, 28, a Baltimore accountant. "We have to tell people what this sport is. If you have to explain to people what sport it is that you're rooting for, it is a clear case of not enough publicity."

A man who agrees with that assessment is Baltimore advertising executive Bob Leffler, who grew up in Philadelphia. Leffler is working on a plan to bring an International Hockey League franchise to town.

"Philadelphia is a broad-based sports town," said Leffler. "Philadelphians would turn up for roller derby. Baltimore is different. It's a pro sports town, a major-league town and a big-event town.

"What happens in Philadelphia with its smaller sports happens naturally. In Baltimore, you have to buy it."

Thunder general manager Jim Ulmond, a Baltimore native, agrees. "There are a lot more sports fans in Philadelphia," he said. "Baltimore loves the Orioles."

Some things sell here

Leffler, who has provided marketing help to teams in the Baltimore Arena since 1987, has made his own in-house study of what it takes to make non-major-league sports work at the Arena.

He has looked at what does work -- the World Wrestling Federation, World Championship Wrestling, Ringling Bros. circus, Disney ice shows. He has calculated the amount of national, televised publicity those activities get, the local publicity, trade advertising and paid advertising they benefit from and what it would cost if they had to buy all of it. Leffler said the cost per date in the Arena would be $35,000.

"These teams -- the lacrosse, soccer and hockey -- get no attention here, so they have to spend $35,000 to $40,000 in advertising a game," said Leffler. He calculates that anyone who starts a secondary sport in Baltimore must be willing to commit from $850,000 to $1 million in advertising per year.

In Philadelphia, the secondary sports get no more publicity in the newspapers or on television and radio stations than their Baltimore counterparts. But the Philly teams' executives say their organizations work hard to get their sports known without the help of general media.

They do it in a variety of ways.

Kixx owner Ed Tepper buys time on a major television station to broadcast 10 of his team's home games. Phantoms chief operating officer Frank Miceli makes sure to promote the Phantoms' "Family Package" -- four tickets, four soft drinks and four hot dogs for $44. And Wings owner Mike French said one of the most important ingredients in his team's attendance success is the "cross-pollination" that is occurring among all the Philadelphia sports franchises.

"We're a footnote, if that, on sports shows in town," French said. "But we benefit from being in this wonderful building [the CoreStates Center], and we benefit from having our name and our games promoted by the building and by other teams in the building.

"Baltimore? In terms of indoor lacrosse, it fights the popularity of field lacrosse. Here there were no preconceived ideas about what the game should be. And, generally, I've played in that [Baltimore] arena and I've watched games in it. It's old, smelly and has a lot of weak sightlines. In today's marketplace, you cannot survive in a building like that."

The core of Philly's success

The 76ers, Flyers, Phantoms, Kixx and Wings play in either the CoreStates Spectrum or Core- States Center. And all of those teams promote the others' events.

"We create a synergy among all our teams," said Peter Luukko, president of CoreStates Complex, the umbrella organization that owns both arenas, the Flyers, Phantoms and Comcast Sports Network and has a working relationship with the 76ers, Wings and Kixx.

"We promote all our events, and we know there is a large market for $10 tickets," Luukko said. "Our competition is the movies, not our pro teams. When we market the lacrosse, the minor-league hockey and soccer, we're looking at families and groups of young people to go and enjoy themselves."

Mike Caggiano bought the Baltimore AHL team three years ago, folded it last season and now operates an East Coast Hockey League team in Upper Marlboro, Md. Caggiano has strong ideas about why the Arena teams don't find success in Baltimore.

No. 1, he said, is the environment of the Arena and the area surrounding it. Just three blocks from Oriole Park at Camden Yards, the atmosphere at the two venues is totally different.

"The Arena is well-managed, but it's 37 years old," said Caggiano. "I got a lot of letters from people who said, 'We had a wonderful time, but we'll never come back. When we got back to our car, it had been broken into.' Others wrote saying they felt unsafe."

At Camden Yards, there is a first-class facility, good exterior lighting, a large police presence on game nights and a feeling, for the most part, of safety.

At the Arena, fans arriving by light rail have no access to the building from the Howard Street side. Lighting is bad. Panhandlers are prevalent. Police are few. And a drab interior, with minimal concessions, does nothing to captivate ticket buyers.

"I believe every team that has left this place has complained about the Arena," said Lee Martin, a Thunder season-ticket holder. "And I think if we had a new, up-to-date arena, I think it would draw more fans. As the movie said: You build it and they will come."

But Caggiano, like Leffler, also suggested that Baltimore just might not be a strong environment for secondary sports. And Drew Forrester, who just ended his 17-year association with indoor soccer in the city, also said that might be the case.

Having a Blast

"In the 1980s, people said Baltimore had a love affair with the Blast," said Forrester, the Blast's former public relations director and the former general manager of the Spirit. In the early and mid-1980s, the Blast played to 90 percent capacity at the Arena.

"People loved the players," Forrester said. "They saw them out in the community, and they loved them. And when they were cut or traded, they resented it. The people of Baltimore did have a love affair with the Blast, but not with the game of indoor soccer."

The people of Baltimore were also helped along in their love by former Blast owner Bernie Rodin, who spent $250,000 promoting the team, and coach Kenny Cooper, a Pied Piper who persuaded thousands that coming to a Blast game was the thing to do.

Now, Ed Hale, another former Blast owner, who recently purchased the Spirit franchise and is restoring the Blast's name, is the latest to take a shot at success.

Hale, who owns a bank along with his trucking empire, said his stature in the community will help him attract sponsors and corporate ticket buyers and that a publicity campaign and some help from the city in making the Arena area more secure will help his team find success where so many others have failed.

Tepper, owner of the Philadelphia Kixx, said something that no one else in either Philadelphia or Baltimore had.

"I think, if correctly handled, Baltimore would be a better market than Philadelphia," said Tepper. "You might not have the population we do or the facilities, but you don't have the competition either.

"The bottom line is if you don't market something correctly, people will find every reason, every excuse for failure. When the Blast was there, they found a way to put people in seats. They did it with a large staff working day and night and with a good owner spending money in marketing and advertising."

Tale of two cities

Top 5 reasons Philadelphians support "little" sports

1. Synergy which creates recognition: Not only does each team market itself, but every other indoor team -- including the NBA 76ers and the NHL Flyers -- promotes each other's games, as does the umbrella organization, Comcast-Spectacor.

2. Two terrific indoor arenas: the CoreStates Center and the CoreStates Spectrum.

3. Good value for their money. Said another way, backlash from Big Four ticket prices and players who are no longer generous with the fans.

4. Location: easy access, easy parking and safe neighborhood.

5. Large population from which to draw, taking in not only Philadelphia but New Jersey, Delaware and extended parts of Pennsylvania.

Top 5 reasons Baltimoreans don't support "little" sports: 1. Lack of money spent on adequate marketing.

2. Decrepit, outdated arena.

3. Population not blessed with a depth of general sports fans.

4. Safety and comfort issues in area surrounding arena.

5. A feeling among residents that if it isn't major league it doesn't matter.

Pub Date: 5/05/98

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