Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson talks about wearing sunglasses on the sidelines this past Sunday and playing against Houston's Deshaun Watson.
There was a moment in August that foreshadowed the mania currently building around Lamar Jackson and the 2019 Ravens.
As players walked off the field after a typical training-camp practice, kids lined up behind a flimsy rope shouting autograph requests. For a fleeting moment, Jackson approached the rope line. His young fans swarmed like sharks on a wounded fish, piling over one another and threatening to collapse the barrier. A grinning Jackson had to flee the scene, which felt like something from the Beatles’ first tour of the United States.
The Ravens, a franchise known for defense and astute roster construction, have simply never had a player like Jackson — 22 years old, quick with a smile or a quip and redefining the most glamorous position in American sports with a style equally captivating to children and grizzled NFL pundits.
They’re riding a five-game winning streak, leading their division and living at the center of national sports discourse as they prepare to host the Houston Texans on Sunday. Lamarmania — or Lamapalooza, as one acolyte preferred to call it — has gripped Baltimore, and fans are eating it up after years of grumbling about their team’s middling performance and boring style of play.
“These last few weeks have really exploded, whether it’s retail or tickets or social-media engagement,” said Brad Downs, the Ravens’ vice president of marketing. “As much as the city embraced our defense, through the two Super Bowl runs and Ray Lewis and Ed Reed … it’s still not an exciting, playmaking quarterback who has that dynamic, fun quality. This is just fun. I haven’t seen anything like it in my time here.”
In recent seasons, fans left thousands of seats empty at M&T Bank Stadium for the team’s home games. Many expressed frustration with the team missing the playoffs four times in five years and with off-field issues such as players kneeling during “The Star-Spangled Banner” before a 2017 game in London.
But those barren patches in the stands have shrunk this year, and Downs said demand for single-game tickets surged after the Ravens beat the Seattle Seahawks and New England Patriots. He said the inventory is down to scattered seats for the Texans game and for December matchups against the San Francisco 49ers and Pittsburgh Steelers.
On the secondary market, the cheapest tickets for the team’s final four home games are 63 percent more expensive than they were at the start of the season, according to the aggregating company TicketIQ.
The Ravens have been besieged by interview requests for their young star to a degree unmatched since the prime days of Lewis. They’ve sold Jackson’s No. 8 jersey at an accelerating clip (it was the 17th best-seller on NFLshop.com last month). Videos they post on social media — Jackson chatting with coach John Harbaugh after he spun away from the Cincinnati Bengals defense, Jackson wearing sunglasses with his teammates — have received millions of views. When Jackson visited Glen Burnie High School for a Friday night game last month, students mobbed him in hopes of crowding into selfies.
The team’s marketing staff looks for ways to connect fans with the human side of players. Jackson’s ease with such situations, Downs said, his instinct to slap hands with fans before he runs off the field following pregame warmups, makes that task immeasurably easier.
“Him doing that on his own, unprovoked from us, takes it to a whole other level,” he said. “The high school kids who are down there high-fiving Lamar and taking a quick selfie before he runs off the field, they’re fans now. They’re going to be fans as long as he’s playing.”
The Ravens have had charismatic Hall of Fame players such as Lewis and Reed, but never an offensive star who combined Jackson’s youth, Most Valuable Player-level production and ever-present highlight potential.
“He’s the first player on offense with whom fans have connected in a long time,” said Marty Rochlin, 45, of Ellicott City. “No ego. Not a diva. Classy on the bench. Classy as starter. Seems to ignore the noise and fuss.”
Rochlin said that even if his 15-year-old daughter is not glued to a particular Ravens game, she’ll text to ask: “What’s Lamar doing?”
That intense connection has transcended the Baltimore area.
Tim Wells, a Ravens fan who moved to Sarasota, Florida, last fall, observes Purple Fridays by donning his No. 8 Jackson jersey. In recent weeks, numerous people have stopped him to chat about the quarterback. One grocery clerk asked him to pose for a photo that would be used to taunt the store manager, a New England Patriots fan. Every Sunday, he and other Baltimore expatriates cram into Gecko’s, a Bradenton bar that features Ravens games.
“Several friends who are Jets fans have told us they are getting on the Ravens bandwagon because of Lamar,” Wells said. “It has been interesting to see how excited people are.”
Another Jackson fan, Vinicius Las Casas, lives in Brazil and has never set foot in Baltimore. But he said his Facebook and WhatsApp chat groups light up every Sunday when the Ravens are playing. He noted that the “irritation is enormous when it feels that Lamar is not valued as [he] should be, whether by the American or the Brazilian press covering football.”
His Twitter page is topped with the now-famous photo of Jackson and teammates posing in sunglasses. “This kid electrified a fan base, not just in Maryland,” Las Casas said.
Inside the Ravens bubble, players and coaches mostly brush past the craze developing around Jackson and the team. They’re aware of it, certainly, but they know it could be fleeting if they don’t keep winning.
“I think anytime you have this type of buzz, it's a good thing,” said tight end Mark Andrews, who lived with plenty of national attention when he played for the University of Oklahoma. “It's never fun when you're on a losing team, and no one wants to talk to you or hear anything about you. So, it's definitely a good thing for us, but again, it's all about staying humble, knowing that winning these couple of games isn't our goal. We have bigger things ahead and bigger things in mind.”
As Harbaugh faced a crowd of national reporters during his usual Wednesday media session, he joked that he’s “not as mad” now that the Ravens have risen in the ubiquitous power rankings of the NFL’s best teams.
He took a rare moment to reflect on Jackson’s impact as he chatted with his quarterback during Sunday’s blowout victory over the Bengals.
“You know how many little kids in this country are going to be wearing No. 8 playing quarterback for the next 20 years because of you?” the coach said in a video posted to the Ravens’ website.
Harbaugh said he doesn’t worry that all the attention will be too much for the 22-year-old quarterback, who’s been in the national spotlight since he won the Heisman Trophy in 2016.
“That’s what sports is, especially football. It starts with the quarterback,” he said. “We know that. He knows that. We’ve talked about that. That’s what he signed up for. And I believe he’s prepared for it.”
In fact, Jackson never seems out of sorts with the attention flowing his way. He deflects credit, reserves criticism for himself and demonstrates the same light touch with each new visitor.
“A lot of fans [direct message] me,” he said. “They let me know how much excitement there is, but it's just a team game. It's not me doing this. It's all of us; all of us are doing it.”
Though Jackson dealt with plenty of skepticism from Ravens fans last year and at the beginning of this season, he said his bond with the city existed from the start.