New Arena Football League team faces branding challenges

Baltimore's new Arena football team begins trying to turn a collection of football castoffs into a team that f

Baltimore's new Arena Football League franchise announced its name — the Brigade — and began the formidable task of trying to turn a collection of football castoffs into a team that feels like the city's own.

At a news conference Wednesday at 55-year-old Royal Farms Arena, the Washington-based ownership group revealed not only the blue and silver team's name and logo — an oversized "B" in a pentagon shape representing Fort McHenry — but also its strategy for ingratiating itself to a city accustomed to turning the page on football when the Ravens' season is over.

The Brigade, who will compete with baseball's Orioles for sports fans in the spring and summer, are seeking a distinctly Baltimore flavor. The players' uniforms — modeled by actors at the news event — will feature not only "BRIGADE" on the pants, but also "CHARM CITY." The logo pays homage not just to Fort McHenry, where 1,000 U.S. soldiers withstood a British bombardment in 1814, but also to the Inner Harbor with a wave-like pattern that will appear on the helmets.

The team has partnered with the MTA on bus advertising, and says it plans to hire business staff with Baltimore roots and sign players with recognizable Maryland connections. Sponsors include MedStar Health and FX Studios, which partners with Under Armour on the apparel and fitness company's elaborate gym at Tide Point, where the players can train.

But the team and Arena Football League face several challenges. The Arena Football League is reinventing itself after losing teams last year from Los Angeles, Arizona, Orlando, Jacksonville, Fla., and Portland, Ore. It's now down to five teams: Baltimore, Washington, Philadelphia, Cleveland and Tampa Bay.

"The question comes down to will the team be able to leverage the strong fan base of the Ravens into fans of the Brigade?" said Matt Saler, vice president of sports marketing for Baltimore advertising and marketing firm IMRE.

"The season takes place during baseball season and the city has historically been known as a baseball town," he said. "And with the Orioles' strong play in recent years, will fans be willing to devote some of their sports attention to the AFL?"

Baltimore opens with a road game at Washington's Verizon Center on April 7. The team is scheduled to play 14 games, mostly at night. The home opener is set for May 7 at Royal Farms Arena.

The team — owned by Monumental Sports & Entertainment of Washington — says it understands that brand loyalty must occur organically.

"It doesn't happen overnight — you can't force it," said Jeffrey Bowler, vice president for business operations at Monumental. The group also owns the NBA's Washington Wizards, the NHL's Washington Capitals, Washington's Verizon Center and another new Arena Football League franchise that also has a military-themed name: the Washington Valor.

"The Ravens play in the winter time," Bowler said. "This is a summer football league."

Brigade officials said Wednesday they anticipate reaching out to members of the Ravens Roost fan clubs to gauge their interest, but there are no current plans to contact the Ravens organization for assistance.

"It's not something we've put on our to-do list," said Roger Mody, managing partner of the Brigade and the Valor. "If we can have a mutually beneficial relationship, of course we would entertain that."

Ravens spokesman Kevin Byrne said the NFL team was focused on its own business. He said the Brigade "should have their days in the sun without our involvement or blessing."

Several ardent Ravens fans expressed curiousity about the new team in town.

"Yeah, it's football. We'd just want some information about them," said Ravens season-ticket holder Robert Harris, a construction foreman from New Freedom, Pa.

Harris has 10 personal seat licenses at M&T Bank Stadium. His basement features six televisions for football, and his stadium section number painted on the wall. "I'd know I'd go out, especially on a Saturday night."

Don Schoppert, a Ravens Roost club president in Bel Air, remembers checking out a previous Baltimore entry in an indoor football league, and said he would do so again.

"It's always a fun time," Schoppert said. "If the schedule's right on a Friday night, I'd go.

"If they have discounted tickets to Ravens Roost members, that would help them."

The Brigade are the first Baltimore franchise in the AFL, which has a smaller playing field and higher-scoring games than the NFL. The Baltimore Blackbirds played in the American Indoor Football Association in 2007. The Baltimore Mariners played from 2008 to 2010 in the American Indoor Football Association and later in 2014 in the relaunched American Indoor Football league.

The Brigade sought to introduce themselves with glitz and energy at the news conference. The event featured a fog machine and videos featuring the team logo and quick cuts of Baltimoreans and city street scenes.

The navy-blue and white uniforms displayed featured an Under Armour logo, but the Baltimore company is not a sponsor.

"Arena football purchases some of their uniforms through our team sales division," an Under Armour spokeswoman said. "We are not a sponsor or official outfitter of their teams."

A small group of players — some already signed to contracts, others hoping for a chance — stood in a corner watching.

The team said it planned to become active in community events and local charitable causes.

That's critical to gaining acceptance, said Erin Chamberlin, senior vice president and general manager of Horseshoe Casino Baltimore, which — like the Brigade — arrived as a newcomer seeking acceptance.

"There is no substitute for hiring local residents, contracting with local businesses, partnering with local organizations and supporting local causes," Chamberlin said.

Horseshoe was brand new in 2014. The Brigade could face an image challenge with their venue, Royal Farms Arena. City officials have long talked about renovating or replacing it. It seats about 11,500 for sporting events.

"Replacing the Royal Farms facility would generate some immediate, short-term interest," said Auburn Bell, an adjunct professor of marketing at Loyola University Maryland. "For the longer-term, the team needs to take a page from the Ravens playbook and establish deep roots in Baltimore's communities.

"This would include philanthropic-based programs stemming from both the team and players. If they can establish a presence in this area, it will go a long way to building fan commitment and loyalty."

jebarker@baltsun.com

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