Once, the sellouts were assured. Once, the team owned the hearts of the city. Once, the Colts were king in Baltimore.

Now, as the 1981 season approaches, the franchise is an embarrassment to the rest of the National Football League. In the final game last season, there were 43,773 empty seats in Memorial Stadium. The turnout of 16,941 was the smallest in modern NFL history.

And it woke up some people.

The jarring effect of those faithful few rattling around the antiquated stadium, the overwhelming indifference of the city, the dismal attendance figures finally have triggered some action from a previously apathetic management.

Spoiled by the effortless success of the '60s, when the beloved Johnny Unitas filled the air with sensational spirals and the stadium with frenzied fans, the front office dozed through the '70s despite an almost uninterrupted decline in attendance.

"We were the classic example," Assistant General Manager Ernie Accorsi admitted when asked about the often-typical NFL attitude of making no effort to promote teams because games sell out anyway.

"I was here in 1970 when we had a string of 51 straight sellouts and when you have a waiting list for season tickets, you have a tendency to think it will last forever," he said. "All during the '60s, we never had a losing season and you start taking things for granted. Boy, we've tasted the other side of the world now."

The other side of the world was shocking reality. The team plunged from a 10-4 record in 1971 to 2-12 in three years. From a string of sellouts, the club's attendance dropped to 25th among 26 teams, averaging 34,042 a game.

The emergence of Bert Jones as one of the league's most exciting and effective quarterbacks helped revive the Colts. After that calamitous 2-12 season, the team won 10 of 14 games the next year and the Eastern Division title.

With Jones passing and Lydell Mitchell running, the Colts increased their victory total to 11 and repeated as division champs. Back came the crowds.An average of 51,677 a game passed through the turnstyles that season and 50,613 the next as Coach Ted Marchibroda's team added a third straight title.

Somehow, though, the crowds were different -- at least that's the opinion of one of the city's longtime popular sports columnists, Phil Jackman of the Evening Sun.

"The old-time fans really didn't like Marchibroda," Jackman said. "The crowds during that time were young and rowdy. The games were a passing fad, just a place to go and try to get arrested. As soon as things got dull, they left."

The exodus was steady and increased rapidly. Average attendance fell almost 5,000 a game the following season when Jones played just three games because of a shoulder injury and the team finished 5-11. Another 5-11 season finished Marchibroda and dwindled the average attendance to 35,989 -- last in the league.

"In the '60s, the team had a love affair with the city; it was involved in the community," said Jim Husbands, the club's former public relations director. "Don Kellett, the old general manager, used to take Artie Donovan and a projector and hit four bars on Sparrows Point. They made a lot of long-lasting friends for the team.

"The Colts were like a favorite uncle, they could do no wrong," he continued. "They formed all those Colt Corrals and were very concerned about the public. Then, when Irsay took over, everything changed." c

Robert Irsay, a self-made millionaire from Chicago, purchased the Los Angeles Rams from the estate of Dan Reeves and then traded the franchise to Carroll Rosenbloom for the Colts on July 26, 1972.

Irsay's first step probably was his most damaging. He hired Joe Thomas as his general manager. Six months later, Unitas was sent to San Diego and the fans still haven't gotten over it.

"We traded away 13 veterans and our image changed," said Accorsi. "This town always has taken the team personally. There is an emotional attachment that most cities don't have. Baltimore isn't a college town and, for a lot of people, the Colts are like their alma mater."

Aside from his general house cleaning of most of the popular veterans, Thomas also caused a furor when he moved the training camp from the campus of Western Maryland College in Westminister to nearby Towson, where he closed the door in the fans' faces.

"Training camp had always been an open, friendly place where families would come for the day, picnic and see the players in an informal setting," said Husbands. "When the practices were closed, the fans were really upset."

There were other slaps in the face. Irsay decided to add the preseason games to the season-ticket package and that turned off a lot of fans.

"I always bought season tickets," said a printer from Bowie. "But once he tacked on two exhibition games, I gave them up. I wasn't going to pay $20 more for two practice games. And I know a lot of people who felt the same way."

Another turn-off was Irsay's threats to move the franchise to Memphis or Jacksonville, Fla. This, naturally, caused resentment and many of the old fans felt betrayed.

The team not only lost its image when Unitas, Tom Matte, Bubba Smith and others departed, it lost its coaching continuity in the '70s.

After the highly successful Don Shula moved to Miami, Don McCafferty, John Sandusky, Howard Schnellenberger, Thomas and Marchibroda passed through during the '70s.

Season-ticket sales peaked in '72 with 49,000, but by '79, they had dipped to 27,000; last year, only 25,000 invested in the full package.

Now, Accorsi insists, the program has started an upswing and the reason is that Irsay finally has decided to start promoting his team.

"We had a meeting and Mr. Irsay told us to change the image," Accorsi said. "He gave us carte blanche to go out and bring the team back to the people."

The first thing that Accorsi did was to expand the speaker's bureau from two full-time players to 22 on a rotating basis to get more involved in the community. He also landed a major radio contract and brought 50 spot announcements a week.

The biggest success, so far, has been the open house at the new training facilities. After having closed practices since 1975, the opening day of camp attracted 14,000.

"The personal touch has been very effective so far," Accorsi said. "We've already sold 28,000 season tickets and hope to do another 1,000 by Oct. 1. This is the first time we had an increase after a losing (7-9) season since 1956.

"I think we're starting to reach the people again," he continued. "I believe that if we hadn't done any promotion we would have gone down two or three more thousand, so in reality, we've gained six."

There is reason for hope again in Crabtown. Irsay signed a two-year stadium lease, quieting the talk of the team leaving. Then he included a letter of apology with the applications for season tickets, saying he was sorry for all the problems in the past.

"There's definitely been a change in attitude," said Accorsi. "People know now the team is going to stay and I think they're ready to support us as they have in the past. The fans here always have supported successful teams.

"Now," he added, pausing for emphasis, "we have to do it on the field."