Among Many Factors, Winning Is Most Important in Filling M&T Bank Stadium Again


Ravens Owner Steve Bisciotti saw the empty seats around M&T Bank Stadium, and, yes, it concerns him.

There are many factors involved, and the Ravens are examining all of them to find solutions. But sometimes it's the most obvious.

The Ravens aren't winning enough.

"I think that's the biggest one," Bisciotti said Friday.

Here's a look at the various factors:

Winning, and Walking the Tightrope

Ravens fans have enjoyed an abnormally successful team for a long stretch. In the franchise's 22 years of existence, the team has won two Super Bowls and reached the playoffs 10 times.

After 2008 and the hiring of Head Coach John Harbaugh and addition of quarterback Joe Flacco, the Ravens reached the playoffs six of the next seven years. They won at least one playoff game in each of those seasons and took home the Super Bowl XLVII title.

But it's hard to stay on top, and the Ravens have slid into the middle of the pack. They've gone 40-40 since raising the Lombardi trophy and missed the playoffs three straight years. It's the team's longest non-playoff stretch since the franchise was first born (1996-1999).

After enjoying so much success, it's tough to swallow less, and that's been reflected in the attendance at home games

"Am I disappointed in it? Yes, I'm disappointed in it. Concerned? Yes," Bisciotti said.

"If winning is what we need to do to fill the stadium up, then that's part and parcel with why we're here. We're here to win games, we're here to succeed, and when we fail, the no-shows are a way of telling us that our fans aren't pleased. So, we've got to win. And I hope that solves the majority of the problems."

Bisciotti said his concerns over attendance are nothing new. He was concerned last year too. What's no coincidence is that over the past two years, the Ravens were a whisker away from making the playoffs.

Tackle Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown short of the goal line in 2016 and Baltimore is likely in. Get off the field on fourth-and-12 last season, and the Ravens could have been one of the league's hottest wild-card teams that nobody wanted to face in the playoffs.

But both of those plays didn't go the Ravens' way. That's just how the game works.

"We're literally looking at a few moments of time that went against us, versus the crazy things that went for us in the Super Bowl year," Bisciotti said. "We're living with fourth-and-12 now. We used to live with [Ray Rice's] fourth-and-29. So, we're living with the Bengals doing that to us, instead of Jacoby Jones doing it to Denver [Mile High Miracle]."

Outside of the 5-11 season in 2015, when Flacco tore his ACL midway through the year, the Ravens have been right on the cusp of the playoffs. They were 8-8 in 2013, 8-8 in 2016 and 9-7 last year.

"We're not talking about 4-12 seasons here," Bisciotti said. "There are a couple games that we should have won, that we wouldn't have been sitting there. We might've been resting our starters against Cincinnati, and that's our goal next year."

That's where Baltimore needs to get over the hump. The Ravens need to be better so they're not in the position where one play makes or breaks their playoff hopes.

This year, a win against the visiting Chicago Bears in overtime would have done it. Or holding onto an upset victory in Pittsburgh.

The Ravens have been walking the tightrope, and they've lost their balance at times.

Offensive Struggles

Another reason for dissatisfaction may center around fans' desire to watch a better offensive product. Because of Flacco's back injury, the offense was "boring," as Bisciotti admitted, for much of the first half of the year.

The team was willing to be more conservative and rely on its bulked-up defense to win games, and that strategy paid off at times. But it also made the offense difficult to watch early.

The Ravens haven't had a top-10 offense since 1997. They ranked 27th in the NFL last year, though they made considerable strides in the second half once Flacco and those around him got healthier and gelled. Baltimore's offense scored the fourth-most points in the league over the final nine games.

While that improvement gives the team confidence moving forward, they won't rest on it. Fans look at the rival Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals with top playmaking weapons, and have been clamoring for some of their own for years.

Bisciotti was asked whether the number of empty seats at the stadium will impact how much he will push his decision-makers to get playmakers, specifically at wide receiver, this offseason.

"Were you in Jupiter [Florida]?" Bisciotti asked the reporter with a smile. "I think that there is a really good chance that we won't be drafting a defensive tackle in the first round. I hear the criticism. … We will be exploring all options in free agency and in the draft for targets for Joe."

Gameday Experience

Outside of improving the roster and on-field product, the Ravens are committed to addressing fans' other needs as well. One thing that is more in the organization's direct control and can be improved right away is the gameday experience.

"We're constantly working on that," Bisciotti said. "We're making a significant private investment in the stadium, and hopefully that's going to be part of the answer."

The Ravens are midway through a three-phase, $120 million self-funded investment at M&T Bank Stadium, which includes better end zone video displays, escalators and elevators, corner suites and video boards, improved sound system and top-notch kitchen facilities.

Bisciotti is also seriously considering lowering concessions prices similar to the model employed by the Atlanta Falcons in their new stadium. There are some hurdles to get over, as the Ravens would have to renegotiate their contract with their vendor, Aramark.

"It's something I would really like to take a hard look at, and at least, come up with select items that we can do," Bisciotti said. "I can't make Aramark do that with me, but I can make them go along as long as it's my share of the profits that I'm waving. Yeah, I'd like to take a look at that. I think we could probably do that."

Players' Protest During National Anthem

Last season, the Ravens received many phone calls from fans who said they would stop attending games because of the protest that about a dozen Ravens made before their Week 3 game in London.

The protest happened less than 24 hours after President Donald Trump's comments that players should be fired for kneeling during the National Anthem. Until that time, no Ravens players had ever knelt, and none did after that one game either.

Bisciotti was asked what he felt the ramifications of the protest were on his franchise, and whether it affected the team's attendance and popularity.

"I do think it's significant, and I do think that it hurt and insulted a lot of our fan base," Bisciotti said.  "And I understand that, but I also am supportive of my players."

Bisciotti had a one-minute conversation with team leaders Benjamin Watson and Terrell Suggs before the London game, but the players' wheels were already in motion.

"There was no time for me to tell them what I thought and what I thought would be an opportunity for them to look for an alternative. So, I'm not pleased with it," Bisciotti said.

"But again, [kneeling was] going on throughout the league, so I don't know if that affected attendance everywhere else. I'm not going to put that on our attendance, because we were talking about attendance last year. So, I just am not going to say that that is the main issue.

Aside from attendance, Bisciotti said he's "very proud" of the way some players such as Philadelphia Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins and former Ravens wide receiver Anquan Boldin realized the message was being misinterpreted and took action to make progress on social justice issues.

"I think America needs to address it," Bisciotti said, adding that he was disappointed the NFL and players weren't more proactive on the issue.

"Regardless of the fact that [freedom of speech is] constitutionally protected, [kneeling is] still insulting to a lot of Americans. And so I sure wish that we had done a better job of dealing with that issue in the offseason. That's a regret that I'll always have."

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