Last Thursday, Bill Bidwill recalled it was just about a year ago that he was in Arizona trying to decide whether to move his football Cardinals from the Valley of the Glum (never a playoff win in St. Louis and an average attendance last season of 27,821 booing fans) to the Valley of the Sun. He pulled into the Gila River Indian community just south of Phoenix, where he debated whether to buy a bumper sticker that seemed to have been made especially for him: CUSTER WORE AN ARROW SHIRT.
It would have been a fitting purchase for Bidwill, who is perhaps the most beleaguered owner in the NFL. After all, he routinely seems to draw the bow and point it in his own direction. On this occasion, though, Bidwill thought better of buying the sticker and instead bought a bolo tie. And several months later he decided to move his Cards to Phoenix.
But the autocratic Bidwill—"If I ever get a chance to help design a stadium, the owner's box will have one seat"—is getting off to a bumpy start in the desert. On Friday night at Arizona State University's Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, his team played its first home game as the Phoenix Cardinals. And after 12 years in which Phoenix-area civic leaders all but groveled in their attempts to get an NFL franchise, it did seem odd that only 51,987 fans showed up in a stadium that seats 72,168. That it was 106° for the 7:30 p.m. kickoff is no excuse; Arizonans expect the heat.
On the other hand, the largest crowd the Cards ever drew in St. Louis was 51,010 against the Rams in 1984, so attracting the biggest home audience in memory, for a preseason game no less, was certainly no disaster. It's just that, as a first date, it wasn't great, proof anew that anticipation of the prom is often better than the dance itself. What was missing were cheerleaders, a band, electricity—a sense of occasion. It all seemed, well, coldly professional. There is clearly a basis for friendship in this young relationship, and love may yet bloom alongside the saguaro. But right now neither the Cardinals nor their fans know quite what to expect of each other.
August 21, 1988
Oh yes, the game. Phoenix lost to New Orleans 33-28 with a combination of sometimes first-rate offense behind Neil Lomax and Cliff Stoudt, and often perfectly horrid defense. Last year the Cards were 25th among the 28 NFL teams in defense. They may not be as good this year. Indeed, if the organization doesn't find some cornerbacks, opponents' scores may reach three digits. Coach Gene Stallings admitted afterward that his defensive backs "did not play very well at times." (And Custer slightly underestimated the Indians.)
Basically, the Phoenix Cardinals played an awful lot like the St. Louis Cardinals. And reality set in fast with the fans. With the team now 0-2 in the preseason, the spectators were quick to observe that what they were getting was the Bidwill Cardinals and not the Lombardi Packers.
Some badly needed defensive leadership and mental toughness did surface in the person of linebacker Ricky Hunley, who during the off-season was first bad-mouthed and then traded by the Broncos. Said Hunley afterward, "The team will get better, I will get better, and the crowd will get better." Hunley suggested, for example, that the crowd should learn to holler "Dee-fence" when the visitors have the ball. Offensively, Tony Jordan, a surprising fifth-round draft pick, almost certainly made the team by carrying 11 times for 72 yards and two touchdowns. The No. 1 draft pick, linebacker Ken Harvey, continued to be unimpressive. So was the No. 3 choice, Tom Tupa, the former Ohio State quarterback.
But the football stuff will sort itself out. The Cardinals would have made the playoffs last year had they not lost their final game to Dallas. Their record was 7-8, which is a good guess for this year, too, give or take a victory over the full 16-game schedule. Of more pressing concern is the relationship between Bid-will and the populace. There is no question that the valley is thrilled to have an NFL team. Adele Harris, community relations director for the Cards, says interest in player appearances and endorsements is "triple what it was in St. Louis." For example, two-hour autograph sessions in St. Louis used to bring a player about $300; in Phoenix they bring $500 to $2,000. Two players have made car-dealership commercials at $10,000 each. Harris says "at least 200 more requests" for player appearances are waiting to be fulfilled. And, she adds, corporations are calling with open-ended offers such as "We have money. What do you need?"
But there also is a widespread opinion among the fans that, despite their affection for the new team, they are being jerked around by Bidwill and treated like rubes. As Arizona Republic columnist Bob Hurt wrote the other day, "Bill, you haven't won a bunch of friends here...."
Up in the loge seats sit Gaylen and Judy Brotherson. They paid $4,004 for two seats at 10 games—and that doesn't include a parking pass. What burns the Brothersons, though, is not the $4,000 but the $4 handling charge. As another local columnist said about Bidwill after his gall bladder operation last spring: The bladder was removed but the gall remained. "He's gouging the people of Phoenix," Gaylen says. "It will hurt him in the long run. He can do this to us, but if he doesn't win, it's going to be a miserable time out here. At these prices, we deserve a winner because we have paid for a winner."
Indeed, the high cost of tickets and some major snafus involving their distribution threaten to make this one of the shortest honeymoons in NFL history. First, Bidwill decided to charge an average of $38 per ticket, highest price in the league by far. (The Dolphins are second with a $26 average.) The Brothersons paid a base price of $350 plus a $1,650 premium for each set of season tickets. Imposing a premium on certain ticket prices is not much different from extracting a bribe, except in this case the policy is made public and nobody goes to jail. No wonder veteran offensive tackle Luis Sharpe says, 'This love affair will only last so long at these ticket prices."
And pricing is not the only source of outrage. When the old Arizona Outlaws of the USFL played in Sun Devil Stadium, they entered into an agreement with Arizona State that should another pro football team come to play in the stadium prior to September 1988, Outlaw season-ticket holders would get first crack at buying tickets for the new team. Second priority would go to 55,000 ASU season-ticket holders. At the time, it didn't appear that an NFL team was in the community's immediate future.
The arrival of Bidwill meant that all kinds of civic high rollers who didn't have Outlaw tickets suddenly wound up with poor seat locations for Cardinal games. Lawsuits were filed and things got nasty. Phoenix Gazette columnist Glen Creno made up this quote and attributed it to Keith Turley, one of Phoenix's most influential executives: "I run the company that oversees the state's largest utility. I've got a nuke plant. I've got banks, I've got real estate, I fly first-class, I've got a switch in my office that can turn off your clock radio. I don't know anything about football. I don't care about football. I came here to be seen with the right people, or, rather, to let the right people be seen with me. And I'm stuck in the grandstands with a bunch of clods that my middle managers hire to clean their houses. I deserve better. I'm rich."
Because lawsuits prevented the Cardinals from starting to sell tickets until mid-June, time pressure also was enormous. Says ticket manager Steve Walsh, "It's a big mess." Walsh said that, as of Friday, the team had sold about 57,000 season tickets, and that 60,000 would be gone by the regular season's home opener against the Cowboys Sept. 12. But even before a game was lost, fans were furious about the prices, the available seats, the perceived inefficiency of the Cardinal organization and the apparent arrogance of a front office that did not list the team's phone number until three months after the Cardinals arrived in town.
Bidwill can argue, however, that much of the outcry rings hollow. For all the threats, all the name-calling and all the big shots who have found themselves being treated like average citizens, who said fans had to buy the tickets? Furthermore, it can be argued that, if anything, Bidwill set his prices too low. If he can sell 57,000 season tickets in two months in the midst of chaos, perhaps he underestimated the market in the first place.
Nevertheless, the big prices have clearly put such pressure on Stallings and his team that the atmosphere is almost suffocating. In the Cardinals' Flagstaff training camp last week, Stallings pondered a query concerning the patience of the Phoenix fans: "I don't think they have a whole lot. They might have more if we were an expansion team. But somebody who pays $38 for a ticket wants instant success. And if I'm paying $2,000, I for sure don't want to see no fumbles."
Offensive guard Joe Bostic says of the ticket prices, "It's a little out of line for what I would pay. I think we should have to prove ourselves first."
Some players, such as running back Stump Mitchell, talk tough: "These fans are not going to have any patience with us, and they won't have to. We're gonna be in the playoffs this year." But, as Lo-max points out, the Cardinals are "still not that good a football team."
There have been other rumblings and grumblings in the desert this summer. The team, some say, should have been named the Arizona Cardinals instead of the Phoenix Cardinals, which happens to be an ornithological oxymoron. Governor Rose Mofford admitted Friday she would have preferred the former name. But, Bidwill says, "the tradition of the NFL is to name the team after cities." (Minnesota and New England must have forgotten that.) There also have been complaints that a decision by the Arizona Board of Regents to allow liquor in the new skyboxes (60 of them will be leased for $60,000 a year) but not in the rest of the stadium smacks of snobbery. Bidwill sees the ruling as "fair."
While Bidwill won't admit to trying to change his image or that of his team, those images do, in fact, seem to be changing. The Cardinals are now spending money, being the first team in the NFL this year to sign all their draft picks, the first to sign their No. 1 selection after the draft, the first to sign all their veteran free agents.
Says Bidwill, "I always said I needed a 70,000-seat stadium so I could compete. Now I have a 70,000-seat stadium and I can compete." He says he'll now be able to spring for a big-bucks acquisition—of the Tony Dorsett variety—in special situations.
Bidwill came up with one nice bit of image-polishing when he decided to make 500 seats available each game for ASU students. ASU will benefit broadly because of the Cards, according to Brent Brown, an ASU veep who has been instrumental in the Cardinals' move. Brown says ASU will receive about $1.5 million from the pro team this season, $1 million of which will be used to pay for new locker-room facilities already under construction at the stadium. Because the new rooms aren't ready, the Cardinals had to dress for the game in their motel rooms.
Bidwill's free spending with ASU flies in the face of the conventional thinking that he is tightfisted. While he freely admitted last week that his personal bottom line will take on a new glow—he doesn't deny that team revenues will increase from about $23 million to about $35 million because of the move—there is also evidence that he is spending more on salaries. In words rarely heard in the past, Mitchell says, "Mr. Bidwill pays pretty good."
Stallings insists that "the fun in professional football is in the winning, not in the participation," but even after the summer skirmishes, there is still some sense around Phoenix that the fans will be happy to participate, to enjoy the game for what it is, to see the Cowboys and the Redskins and the Steelers and the Giants come to town, to simply enjoy the spectacle.
Asked if he felt he was a popular man in Phoenix, Bidwill said quietly, "Yes." But he knows it's possible that he might yet be wearing an arrow shirt.