Rhonda Miller arrived at M&T Bank Stadium believing her Ravens would need nothing short of a belated Christmas miracle to remain competitive with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
"But that's what would make it so exciting if it happened," the Bel Air resident said Sunday, as black-and gold-clad Steelers supporters streamed into the stadium around her.
Miller must have been pleased a few hours later when the Ravens delivered a startling victory that, frankly, was out of step with one of the most dispiriting seasons in the franchise's 20 years in Baltimore. Fans and some local businesses have felt the effects, even as those fans' loyalty and NFL revenue sharing have left the organization relatively unfazed.
"It has been tough on us, it has been tough on everybody. It has been tough on the fans," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said in his postgame news conference. "But our fans have hung in there, just like our team has hung in there. … What a statement about the kind of people we have here in this community. It's powerful."
Some members of that community, however, have suffered. A team that entered training camp with Super Bowl aspirations started 1-6 and now is 5-10 as injuries wiped out more than a dozen key players. Beating the Steelers means the Ravens will not finish with the worst record in the organization's 20-season history, even if they lose in the regular season finale Sunday in Cincinnati. But area sports bars and restaurants reported a ripple effect caused by the down year.
"Are they still playing?" joked Bob Simko, the food and beverage manager at Max's Taphouse, a popular spot for fans of the Ravens and other NFL teams. "Sundays are pretty quiet these days. We get our contingents of Saints fans and Steelers fans and Redskins fans. As far as the Ravens, there's no juice behind it."
Few dollars lost
Though most fans have clung to their faith in Harbaugh and general manager Ozzie Newsome, the team faces significant questions heading into the offseason. The uncharacteristic losing hasn't done significant financial damage to the Ravens, though.
After making the playoffs in six of the previous seven seasons, the team has bought itself enduring good will in the community, according to analysts and key indicators.
Ravens fans generally remained "one of the most loyal fan bases in all of football," said Kyle Burks, owner and founder of STR Marketplace, a Houston-based firm that contracts with the Ravens and other teams to coordinate online sales of personal seat licenses.
Also helping the organization in this down season is the NFL's financial model, which tends to spread the wealth. The financial effect of not making the playoffs is negligible, according to a number of indicators. While teams can collect money from concessions and parking in the playoffs, the league keeps postseason gate receipts that amount to millions of dollars.
The Ravens have played 15 postseason games since the 2008 season. But only two of those games were at home. The NFL pays playoff teams a stipend for expenses, such as travel. But postseason appearances come with other costs, such as paying bonuses to members of the coaching staff.
Revenue from Ticketmaster — the partner of the Ravens and other NFL teams in the secondary ticket market — is split among the 32 teams.
While franchises in most other professional sports receive playoff bounties, NFL teams "generate a fraction of those revenues and sometimes even lose money during the playoffs as expenses and incentive payouts pile up," Forbes.com wrote in 2013.
But the Ravens will miss out on some playoff benefits. The players won't be receive league-financed postseason bonuses. The initial bonuses would have been $23,000 per player for making the wild-card round and $25,000 for winning the division, according to the league's collective bargaining agreement with the players union.
Making the playoffs also aids relationships with sponsors and helps cultivate new ones. Ravens sponsors include Under Armour, M&T Bank, T. Rowe Price and Giant Food.
"When you win, that not only helps with the fan base but it helps with corporate sponsorships going into the next season," said T.J. Brightman, president of A. Bright Idea, a public relations and marketing firm with offices in Bel Air and Sonoma, Calif.
But not making the playoffs in a single season will have no bearing on a "years-long agreement" with Giant Food, according to the company's public and community relations manager, Jamie Miller. Brightman, a former Orioles sales executive, said the Ravens "should be fine" in the long run "because they've established themselves as a first-class organization not only in the city but in the NFL."
Ticket sales steady
The Ravens had hoped M&T Bank Stadium would not be overrun Sunday by Steelers fans who bought tickets unloaded by frustrated Ravens backers.
It was difficult to gauge how many Steelers fans packed the stadium, but they seemed to comprise at least a third of the sellout crowd of 71,261.
Despite the Ravens' record, overall ticket sales were not a concern because most seats were sold in advance. But the Ravens could not control whether resales were made to Steelers fans on the open market. Several days before the game, Baker Koppelman, vice president for ticket sales and operations, said "we're hopeful that if they are selling tickets, they aren't selling to Steeler fans."
The season ticket renewal percentage remains in the upper 90s and the permanent seat license waiting list has been holding steady at about 2,800 fans, Koppelman said. Permanent seat licenses are akin to an initiation fee for season-ticket holders. They are owned by fans, not the team, provided that 10-game season ticket package is renewed each season.
The sales prices of personal seat licenses in the open market seems slightly lower than a year ago, when the Ravens were a playoff team.
For example, in December 2014 a fan sold the rights to six lower end zone seats in Section 136 of M&T Bank Stadium for $2,583 each. In a separate transaction last month, six seats in the same section — but two rows higher — went for $2,375 apiece, according to the STR Marketplace sales data website.