A COUPLE of years ago, Phillies president David Montgomery was talking about the Eagles and the National Football League and their extended stay in the sweetest of sporting sweet spots, about how no one has ever dominated in the business the way that "the NFL today dominates on Sundays in the fall." And who was to argue?
More recently, in a conversation with another front-office person in town, the topic was the Eagles again. Truth be told, the other teams sometimes shake their heads in wonder at the behemoth that the Eagles have become in this region. Some people are jealous about it, and some are catty, and others dismiss it as all somehow being tied into the point spread. The honest ones, though, are mostly in awe at what Jeffrey Lurie and Joe Banner have built.
But, as this one front-office guy said, "There has to be a limit somewhere, right?"
You wonder whether now, finally, we are beginning to see it - in television ratings and in attendance at Lehigh for training camp, to name two metrics.
You wonder whether, after all of this time, the Eagles' helmets are finally starting to bang against the invisible green ceiling.
I couldn't manage to connect with a couple of Eagles executives yesterday afternoon, so what follows will be without the benefit of their perspective. Still, you know they have to think about this stuff, especially after watching their numbers plummet this summer at Lehigh.
Definition of plummet: from a record 139,123 spectators at 11 practices in 2007 down to 80,227 at 13 practices for which the Eagles announced attendance this year. That is a 42 percent decline overall and a 51 percent decline per session, a shocking drop.
And, no, it isn't the price of gasoline. Big amusement-park companies - including the one that owns Dorney Park, right down the road from Lehigh - have announced that attendance is either slightly up or slightly down this summer, essentially flat compared to 2007. And when you add in the fact that, in tough economic times, free entertainment like the Eagles provide at Lehigh should be more attractive than paid attractions like amusement parks, well . . .
No, it isn't the economy. So what is it? Just a blip? Emotional exhaustion with the ups and downs? General boredom after 10 years of Andy Reid and Donovan McNabb? Failure to sign an exciting free agent? Something else?
The vote here is for general boredom. That said, do not go crazy. The Eagles continue to be an enormous enterprise with a huge following, still the biggest team in town, still the biggest by a lot. They run a great charity, the Eagles Youth Partnership. They sell a lot of stuff. That is not likely to change any time soon.
They sell every ticket in their inventory and they could probably sell twice as many. Their television audiences remain bigger than anything else in town, and by a lot. Overall media coverage, of every triumph and hiccup, is as microscopic as ever. Again, none of that is likely to change.
But growth? There are signs now that the Eagles might be reaching the outer limits of their brave, new, fabulously lucrative world. The 900-pound gorilla might not be able to get to 901 pounds after all.
It isn't just Lehigh. The Eagles took a hit on television last season, too. With a disappointing team, their ratings were down about 9 percent compared to the 2006 team that made the late playoff run with Jeff Garcia at quarterback. They were about the same as the ratings in 2005, the sports hernia/situps-in-the-driveway year. They were about 12 percent below the Super Bowl season of 2004.
Most of it is explainable by wins and losses. With that, though, it is hard to see any growth in those numbers. Now, the Eagles undoubtedly have other measures that show their business continuing to get bigger - and ticket demand is absurd and no one can deny that.
They still own Sunday. But you couldn't help but wonder when you drove to Lehigh and never
really hit traffic. *
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