The Flutie factor continues to grow in the U.S. Football League, and the Baltimore Stars are the most recent beneficiaries of the mystique of the New Jersey Generals' quarterback.
Flutie, the Heisman Trophy winner, is proving irresistible to USFL fans, and it's no different in the Baltimore-Washington area. He apparently has given the Stars a large attendance boost for their home opener against the Generals today at Byrd Stadium (2:30 p.m., ABC-TV), as the newly arrived franchise tries to find a following.
More than 10,500 fans have bought single-game seats, to go with 16,000 purchasers of season tickets. The Stars were counting on large last-minute sales, and if the weather is good, the 41,000-seat stadium could be sold out.
"He's a real big draw," said Stars marketing director Tim Pearson. "He's everything he was cracked up to be . . . A sellout sounds like pie in the sky right now, but if the weather is nice, it could happen."
According to Stars officials, the 10,000 one-game buyers are split evenly between Baltimore and Washington, while 80 percent of the season ticket holders are from Baltimore. Season ticket holders are regarded by the Stars as loyalists who are coming principally to see the defending USFL champions in their home opener, while the single-game buyers are the thrill seekers who want to see Flutie and the Generals (2-1).
"If people want to see an exciting young football player and a Heisman Trophy winner, he should be a big draw," Carl Peterson, the club's president and general manager, said wryly.
Flutie has become Mr. Everything for the Generals. In last week's 35-24 victory over the Los Angeles Express, he carried the ball nine times for 97 yards and three touchdowns.
Don Klosterman, the Express' president and general manager, likens Flutie's style to "recess football. The game goes east to west," he said. "You're over here and he's over there."
Baltimore Stars owner Myles Tanenbaum said he was asked by New Jersey owner Donald Trump to have the Stars "take it easy" on Flutie, according to the Baltimore News American.
But Stars spokesman Bob Moore said last night that Trump's comments likely were made in jest.
"It's the kind of thing one owner says to another when you have a rivalry going," Moore said. "The players are unaware of it."
A league spokesman said yesterday Trump had "no recollection" of such a conversation.
"Donald was serious," Tanenbaum told the News American. "He wanted me to talk to my coach so he could talk to the players because we play them a couple times this season. He said the players should try not to hurt Flutie . . . He wanted to protect his investment."
The Stars haven't helped their marketing department with an 0-2-1 record. They have been hurt by turnovers -- losing five of 11 fumbles and giving up four interceptions, three by starting quarterback Chuck Fusina. They have developed a habit of letting leads slip away late in the game.
Last week, they led, 13-0, at the half before the Memphis Showboats rallied for a 21-19 victory. Both trends are uncharacteristic of the defending USFL champion, which had been considered the most consistent franchise in the league the previous two seasons.
The Stars had been troubled with a rash of injuries left over from training camp, but almost all are healed, and one good indication is that they have been outgaining opponents. They also may be suffering a little as a result of their move from Philadelphia, where they still practice.
"I'm surprised they haven't won their first game yet," Trump said. "The odds are 100 to 1 against it. I would bet they'll win most of the rest of their games. Don't let the first couple of weeks fool you."
The response from Washington is particularly pleasing for the Stars. They expected area residents to suffer from a hangover left by the former Washington Federals, the worst team in pro football the previous two years.
But Washington area fans are familiar with the route to Byrd Stadium, where the University of Maryland plays, and the Stars are, after all, defending league champions.
"We're hoping the single-game interest will convince people to follow us," Pearson said. "That's what the Feds tried to do, but they didn't have the quality to back it up."
Season tickets, on the other hand, have not sold well in Washington. Pearson estimates only about 1,000 have come from this area. One thing Stars officials hope will help is lower ticket prices. Federals season tickets went for between $126 and $144, while the Stars' can be had for $99. The slogan is, "See More for Less."
The Stars have considered Baltimore their real base of support all along, and fans there have responded in kind. While Baltimore residents are not as familiar with the stadium, and are just getting acquainted with their new franchise, they are seeking something to replace the NFL Colts, who departed for Indianapolis last season. The Stars' season ticket sales are already higher than their sales last year in Philadelphia.