Bills beat Bengals in Cleveland

The Cincinnati Enquirer

The Buffalo Bills are not out to convert Cleveland. Embittered Browns fans cannot be expected to embrace another National Football League team so soon after the dastardly desertion of Art Modell.

But they might welcome the chance to vent, to bond, to boo an old rival. They might still harbor some hatred for those striped helmets from Cincinnati.

''We're not trying to sway them away from their beloved Browns,'' Bills Advertising Manager Brett Reynolds said Tuesday. ''We're saying, 'If you can't bring yourself to cheer for us, then cheer against the Bengals.' ''

The Bills are selling their Nov. 17 game against the Bengals as a salute to Cleveland Browns fans. More than 6,000 tickets have been set aside for the purpose of reviving the Dawg Pound in the end zone of Rich Stadium, and that figure figures to grow.

Wooing the Browns

Abandoned Browns fans will be looking for somewhere to spend their Sunday afternoons for the next several seasons, and Buffalo looks to have the early lead. The Bills enlisted Browns icon Bernie Kosar for their marketing campaign in Northern Ohio, and now have two of Cleveland's radio stations competing for the rights to broadcast their games.

When Browns fans were flooding NFL franchises with protest mail last fall, the Detroit Lions built a mailing list from the blistering letters and fuming faxes. They later hired a marketing firm in Cleveland. They, too, have left the Bengals behind in cultivating this massive and temporarily vacant football market.

''We're trying to target that group also,'' Bengals Business Manager Bill Connelly said. ''Although maybe a little more subtly (than Buffalo and Detroit) . . . We think we need to become much more regional than we are.''

To that end, the Bengals confirmed Tuesday that their preseason training camp will henceforth be held at Georgetown College, in Kentucky. This decision was not driven by marketing considerations, but it can hardly help but enhance the team's southern exposure.

According to the team's computations, 70 percent of Bengals' season ticket holders are from Southwestern Ohio. Despite its population, proximity and dearth of professional sports, Kentucky accounts for only 11 percent.

The Bengals need to do better beyond Hamilton County, and soon. When the team moves into its new playpen about the turn of the millennium, there will be at least 15,000 additional seats to sell, presumably at higher prices. To fill those seats on a consistent basis - and beyond the initial infatuation period a new stadium provides - it will be necessary to pitch Bengals football to a much wider audience. The time to start selling was last November.

Too late to win

Once Modell announced his move to Baltimore, the Bengals should have started selling themselves as Ohio's team. They might never have made any major inroads in Cuyahoga County, but they could have staked a stronger claim to Columbus and Dayton and other towns where the Browns have been a more powerful presence and a more distant drive.

To date, however, the Bengals' regional marketing efforts have been so subtle that they don't even show up under an electron microscope. Paul Brown's theory was a football team's marketing department consisted of the 11 players on the field. If you didn't win, it didn't matter.

Modern NFL economics no longer permit such passivity. In the era of multimillion-dollar free agents and illusory salary caps, a franchise owner must exploit every available revenue stream to keep up with the Joneses (and the DeBartolos). Thus Mike Brown has grudgingly expanded his payroll to include directors of marketing, community affairs and stadium development.

Now he should give them some seed money and send them north, before Cleveland lands another team.

''We're kicking some things around,'' Bengals marketing director Mike Hoffbauer said Tuesday. ''It might involve bringing in several busloads of fans. We're trying to find a hook to interest the Browns fans. But for this season, I don't think we're going to do anything.''

Buffalo wins this round by default.

Tim Sullivan is an Enquirer columnist.

Published August 21, 1996.