Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Chasing the Elusive National Spotlight

The Baltimore Sun ran a story today about how the Baltimore Ravens are not getting the respect they deserve. Of course, the Ravens always say the lack of attention fuels their competitive fire, but for many fans, this just feels like more hatred for the team that was once the Cleveland Browns. Even I, in my more heated moments, jump on the paranoia bandwagon when I marvel at how little attention our team gets even when we are playing well. It's hard to ignore when John Harbaugh gets zero votes for coach of the year or Joe Flacco gets zero votes for rookie of the year. Most Valuable Player? Give it to Payton Manning. Everybody loves Payton.

It would be easy to believe that the rest of the country hates us, and while I definitely believe that the NFL will never forgive us for taking Cleveland's team (like Indianapolis took ours, but that was okay for some reason), I don't think there are all that many Ravens haters out there. The real issue is that we have such a narrow market. With the Redskins to our south and Pittsburgh and Philadelphia to our north, the Ravens market is basically the upper half of Maryland. Don't get me wrong, we have a rabid fan base. I kinda felt sorry for the Dolphins when I saw all those empty seats at their playoff game. It's a playoff game, for God's sake, and Miamians can't be bothered to come off the beach for that ?!! Even when the Ravens are playing lousy, M&T Bank Stadium is packed with 70,000 plus screaming fans. It's an intensely loyal following, but it will never extend very far since there are so many teams clustered in such a small area.

The only way for the Ravens to cultivate a following outside the Maryland area is to develop an image that transcends local pride. When Brian Billick was coach, he cultivated a star-driven, bad-ass image not unlike the hated Oakland Raiders. Football fans found it easy to dislike us with all our trash talking and penalties and tantrums on the field. The new coach, John Harbaugh, has cleaned up the team, instilled discipline, and has placed the focus on team rather than individual stars. This could go a long way to changing our image.

We also need a star that people will like. Ray Lewis is the heart and soul of the Ravens, but the general public will always remember that awkward murder case from almost 10 years ago. Despite all the good he's done, that incident has tainted him forever. Also, despite all his natural charisma, he comes across as stiff and stilted when he does TV commercials. He's just not natural in front of a camera.

In Joe Flacco, we have our franchise quarterback, but I doubt that he has the charisma to become a national media darling. He's a decent, hardworking, blue-collar kinda kid, but they don't call him "Joe Cool" for nothing. He is pretty flat and unemotional most of the time. The only commercial he's done so far is for a local restaurant, and it's laughably bad. He makes Elvis Presley look like Robert DeNiro.

Actually, it seems the very thing I like about the Ravens is probably the thing that will keep them from grabbing the national spotlight, and that is that they are a team of hardworking professionals who do their job well rather than a handful of individual stars with a team around them. The reason why the Dallas Cowboys became "America's Team" in the late 70s, in my opinion, was that they had no-nonsense guys like Roger Staubach and a straight-arrow coach like Tom Landry. Since then, they have more than spent that goodwill with an egomaniac owner and a handful of whiny, spoiled divas.

The media may want to hang on to that "America's Team" image because it's easy for them to promote, and the almost daily soap opera that is the Dallas Cowboys makes for tantalizing coverage, but the rest of the country has already tuned out. When it comes to football, America likes selfless, hardworking players, not selfish stars. The irony is that we want to single out those who don't want to be singled out. Perhaps that's why only a handful of them can actually play the balancing act. The Manning boys do it pretty well, but most get tripped up after awhile. Tony Romo is a nice guy, but the minute he put the moves on Jessica Simpson, he was tainted by the tabloid bug.

So it's likely that the Ravens will never really grab the national media nod that they deserve, even if they go all the way to the Super Bowl. However, fans have to keep in mind that few teams or players grab national attention, and many who do get it for all the wrong reasons. As long as they remain a great team that wins football games, who cares what the rest of the country thinks?

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