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In Harrisburg, Ravens in a TV scrimmage


The territorial battle between the Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers has stretched to Harrisburg, Pa., where state legislators and passionate Steelers fans are attempting to get the Ravens bounced off local television.

Last month, the Pennsylvania House of Representatives passed a resolution imploring the NFL to revise its rule on local access to televised broadcasts of its games.

The NFL says it will not change a longstanding policy governing secondary markets that dictates any TV station whose signal reaches within 75 miles of an NFL stadium must carry the away games of that team in that market.

By definition, Harrisburg, 79 miles from Baltimore, is the secondary market of the Ravens. The Steelers and Philadelphia Eagles may have more fans in Harrisburg, but WHP-TV, the CBS affiliate there, is forced to show Ravens road games before any Steelers game. Harrisburg is 205 miles from Pittsburgh.

Therein lies the rub.

"Pennsylvania is a very large football state," said Steve Mishkin, press secretary to Sam Smith, the House Majority Leader in Pennsylvania, who cosponsored the resolution.

"We take our football very seriously. It's discouraging for the NFL to attempt to force Pennsylvanians to root for a Baltimore team.

"We think it's about local choice. It should not be the NFL trying to dictate who we will be fans with."

Pinched in geographically to the north by the Eagles and south by the Washington Redskins, the Ravens consider Harrisburg an attractive market.

"The bottom line is, that's our market. We want that market," team spokesman Kevin Byrne said. "Every area we have is vital. There is no doubt we cherish Harrisburg. We will cultivate Harrisburg, and our base will grow there."

According to NFL spokesman Seth Palansky, the league tries each year in its scheduling to limit the number of TV conflicts between the two AFC teams.

This year there are three - out of 16 games. Last year there were four. (The Eagles do not conflict because, as an NFC team, they are shown primarily on Fox.)

Today, for example, the Steelers-Cleveland Browns game will be pre-empted in Harrisburg by the Ravens' game at the New York Jets.

Harrisburg is not the only area with a split fan base. When Jacksonville got an NFL team, the Jaguars bumped the Miami Dolphins off some TV broadcasts. Erie, Pa., is the secondary market for the Buffalo Bills, even though it has more Browns and Steelers fans. Los Angeles, without a team, gets the San Diego Chargers' road games.

"While we're sympathetic and will listen to their concerns, the policy is going to remain the way it is," Palansky said. "But we're thankful that we have such passionate fans who, when three of 17 weeks are an issue, will go to such lengths.

"It has more to do with maintaining this policy nation-wide. If you start changing, you don't have a rule."

Smith, a Punxsutawney Republican, and his cosponsor, Rep. Paul Costa, a Pittsburgh Democrat, are forwarding their resolution to the rest of the country's legislatures in a bid to gain widespread support.

"We don't have any authority as a state legislature over what the NFL does," Smith said. "But it's a crazy issue that created a lot of stir, and we're just trying to push the message to the NFL that local television stations need more flexibility to respond to their individual fan base.

"If the fans' reaction is similar in other markets beyond our immediate region, I'm hopeful the NFL would care enough about the people carrying the freight that it would do something."

A Steelers fan club plans to picket NFL headquarters in Manhattan tomorrow.

Byrne said he traces the split in Harrisburg's fan loyalty to the 12 seasons after Baltimore lost the Colts and had no team, from 1984 through 1995.

"Pittsburgh had some pretty good tams in that time to get a stronghold with some fans," he said. "But we have seen it's a strong area for us. We sell season tickets there.

"We think it's an area that will grow. [Coach] Brian Billick has been up there a couple times to speak. We've done some marketing and public relations up there."

Byrne also said there are "at least" four Ravens booster clubs in the Harrisburg area.

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