Hun­gry for a re­bound, fans stick with Ravens

Af­ter a dis­ap­point­ing sea­son last year, Bal­ti­more looks for­ward to see­ing its foot­ball team bounce back as it has done be­fore

Baltimore Sun - - FRONT PAGE - By Jeff Barker

If the grass looks greener to fans at M&T Bank Sta­dium when the Ravens sea­son opens Sun­day, it’s not just be­cause the ar­ti­fi­cial turf has been re­placed with more than 50,000 square feet of pris­tine, nat­u­ral grass.

Eight months af­ter a los­ing sea­son marked by in­juries to key stars and con­spic­u­ously empty pur­ple seats, the new play­ing field stands as an apt metaphor for a fan base with a fresh out­look, based partly on the team’s his­tory of re­bound­ing from dis­ap­point­ment.

Many fans know the Ravens have not suf­fered con­sec­u­tive los­ing sea­sons since 1996-1998, the team’s first three sea­sons in Bal­ti­more, and haven’t missed the play­offs in two straight years since 20042005. Last year’s record was 5-11, putting this team squarely on sched­ule — at least in the­ory — for a re­turn to win­ning form.

“I think they ex­pect us to turn it around,” Ravens Pres­i­dent Dick Cass said of the fans Thurs­day. “At the end of the sea­son, we had more no-shows than we’d had in pre­vi­ous years. That con­cerned us, and I think that’s at­trib­ut­able to our per­for­mance on the field as much as any­thing. It makes us go back and look at what we’re do­ing on game day and what can we do bet­ter, some­thing other than just on-field per­for­mance.”

The club is plan­ning a ren­o­va­tion of the 18-yearold, 71,000-seat sta­dium, and hopes to an­nounce de­tails this fall, Cass said.

“We know we have to keep our sta­dium up to date and fresh,” he said. “I don’t want

to share the plans be­cause we’re work­ing through it all with the Mary­land Sta­dium Au­thor­ity.” Michael J. Frenz, the au­thor­ity’s ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor, was un­avail­able for com­ment, a spokes­woman said. Al­ready com­pleted for the opener against the Buf­falo Bills is a new Un­der Ar­mour store in­side Gate D, off the main con­course, of­fer­ing Ravens gear for men, women and kids. About 3,000 game-day work­ers — in­clud­ing ush­ers, con­ces­sions work­ers, park­ing lot at­ten­dants and se­cu­rity per­son­nel — re­ceived cus­tomer ser­vice train­ing dur­ing the off­sea­son from the Dis­ney In­sti­tute, a train­ing arm of the Walt Dis­ney Co. “We’re hop­ing that the fans will no­tice some dif­fer­ence in how the staff in­ter­acts with the fans on game day,” Cass said. But the club un­der­stands the best game-day ex­pe­ri­ence is a win. Last year’s team en­dured sea­son-end­ing in­juries to first-round draft pick Bre­shad Per­ri­man dur­ing train­ing camp, to de­fen­sive star Ter­rell Suggs in the opener and to quar­ter­back Joe Flacco in Game 10. With the Ravens out of play­off con­tention, thou­sands of Steelers fans bought tick­ets on the sec­ondary mar­ket, ap­pear­ing to make up at least a third of the sell­out crowd of 71,261 at the sea­son’s fi­nal game of the sea­son at M&T Bank Sta­dium— aBal­ti­more vic­tory— on Dec. 27. “Foot­ball is a rough game, and in­juries are go­ing to hap­pen,” said Ravens sea­sonticket holder Robert Har­ris, 48, who has 10 per­sonal seat li­censes and whose base­ment fea­tures six tele­vi­sions for foot­ball view­ing and has his sta­dium sec­tion num­ber — 541 — painted on the­wall. He and his brother are fa­mil­iar to many fans from their old bread truck, which is painted pur­ple and bears im­ages of a car­toon char­ac­ter per­form­ing an un­sa­vory act on the hel­mets of Ravens’ di­vi­sion op­po­nents. Har­ris, a con­struc­tion fore­man from NewFree­dom, Pa., con­sid­ers last sea­son an aber­ra­tion. This year, he said, “The of­fen­sive line is look­ing pretty good. I’m an old-school guy. I like the power run­ning game. I’m the kind of fan that I al­ways look for the pos­i­tive.” De­spite last sea­son’s trou­bles, the sea­sonticket re­newal per­cent­age re­mains over 99 per­cent, ac­cord­ing to Cass. “We’re still do­ing ex­treme­ly­well in­terms of ticket sales, suite sales and spon­sor­ship sales,” he said. InMay, the team in­stalled the new field, truck­ing in sod fro­maNorth Carolina farm. The play­ers “wanted real grass put back in our sta­dium,” head groundskeeper Don Fol­lett said at the time. The sta­dium had pre­vi­ously had ar­ti­fi­cial turf since 2002. Be­fore last sea­son, the club said it spent more than $5 mil­lion to im­prove sta­dium Wi-Fi ac­cess for fans. The Ravens en­dured a ma­jor pub­li­cre­la­tions blow in 2014 when a ho­tel sur­veil­lance cam­era video showed run­ning back Ray Rice punch­ing his then-fi­ancee in the face. Rice has been out of foot­ball ever since. But the Ravens’ pop­u­lar­ity en­dured. The team’s re­la­tion­ship with fans has been aided by sta­bil­ity, Cass said. Gen­eral man­ager Ozzie New­some has been in the front of­fice since the team’s ar­rival in Bal­ti­more in1996. JohnHar­baugh has been head coach since 2008. “The fans are very re­silient, just like the play­ers,” said re­tired Ravens of­fen­sive line­man Jonathan Og­den, a Hall of Famer who has re­mained in the area and will min­gle with fans at Horse­shoe Casino Bal­ti­more dur­ing se­lec­tMon­day nights this sea­son. “It’s a very­well-ed­u­cated fan base. “They un­der­stand you lose a Ter­rell Suggs, then all of a sud­den Flacco goes down,” Og­den said. “It kind of snow­balled on them a lit­tle bit last sea­son.” De­spite the first los­ing sea­son since 2007, the team’s net­work of fan clubs hasn’t seen mem­ber­ship drops. “We’ve got­ten some more in­ter­est from peo­ple,” said Jim McCain of Ar­bu­tus, coun­cil pres­i­dent of the Bal­ti­more Ravens Roosts. “As fans, you have to un­der­stand you can’t win it ev­ery year,” said McCain, 48, su­per­vi­sor for an elec­tri­cal sup­ply dis­trib­u­tor. “You’re not a fan if you’re a fair-weather fan. You’re just not.” At­ten­dance at the lo­cal Ravens Roost meet­ings in Bel Air have picked up in an­tic­i­pa­tion of a new sea­son, said Don Schop­pert, 48, the lo­cal club’s pres­i­dent. Par­tic­i­pa­tion had slipped a lit­tle last sea­son, said Schop­pert, whose dogs are named Flacco andTucker af­ter theRavens quar­ter­back and kicker Justin Tucker. “I’m pumped for the sea­son,” Schop­pert said. “I don’t have sea­son tick­ets. But I have two 65-inch TVs and a 55-inch TV. “I even put in a 32-inch TV in the bath­room.”

CAITLIN FAW/BAL­TI­MORE SUN

Ravens fans pose for a pic­ture with Poe, the team mas­cot, at Fri­day’s Count­down to Kick­off Party at the Mary­land State Fair­grounds. Last year’s trou­bled sea­son does not seem to have had a nega­tive ef­fect on fan en­thu­si­asm.

CAITLIN FAW/BAL­TI­MORE SUN

A Ravens fan adds his greet­ing to the “Flock Board” at the Count­down to Kick­off Party at the state fair­grounds. The Ravens haven’t recorded con­sec­u­tive los­ing sea­sons since the 1990s, and many fans an­tic­i­pate a re­turn to win­ning form this year.

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