By Tom Timmermann
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
09/07/2006

It's an issue that hasn't come up in these parts since the 1999 season, but it's something that could come into play as the Rams' season rolls on: Could the team's streak of selling out every game in St. Louis come to an end this year?

The Rams open their 12th season in St. Louis on Sunday against Denver coming off a 6-10 record and with just one winning season in their past four. The Rams fired Mike Martz and brought in Scott Linehan to turn things around, but if the recovery takes time, who knows how fans will react? The Rams' first exhibition game was blacked out on local television, and the team joined Edward Jones to buy up 2,000 seats at the deadline to get the second game on local TV. And at those games, the number of no-shows was noticeable. Several games toward the end of the season have a few thousand tickets available.

"Football fans are sophisticated,'' said Rams president John Shaw. "They know there are cycles in sports. I would be surprised if any of our regular season games don't sell out."

To date, only two of the Rams' eight home games -- against Kansas City and Chicago -- are sold out, and Sunday's opener against Denver almost assuredly will reach that status today. Rams vice president Bob Wallace said about 2,000-3,000 tickets remain at most for other games. But fans may be taking a wait-and-see approach.

"We're not talking about many tickets," Wallace said. "We put individual tickets on sale right before the blackout, and that slowed things down for the regular-season games. Especially if we have early season success, we'll sell out the ones later in the year."

The problem, of course, would be if they don't. Since the Rams got off to a 6-0 start and streaked to the Super Bowl in 1999, Rams tickets have been hard to come by and even last year, whether or not games would sell out was never an issue. But in 1998, when the team had its fourth losing record in as many seasons in St. Louis, the team and local TV stations had to dip into their pockets several times to buy remaining seats to put the game on local television, and there were numerous no-shows at games. To date, every regular-season Rams home game has been televised locally.

Shaw and Wallace say the Rams haven't significantly changed their marketing budget for the year, though the team did go out and hire a marketing consultant, Bob Reif, who used to work with the Miami Dolphins and the Indy Racing League. "You bring in a fresh set of eyes to make sure you're not missing anything,'' Wallace said. Reif declined an interview request on the Rams' marketing plans.

Wallace said, "I think every year you look to try to expand your brand to try to get people excited about the coming season. Obviously, it's easier coming off an 11-5 playoff season than a 6-10 non-playoff season. It's a more difficult challenge, but it's not one that's much different than challenges we've had in the past. In earlier years, there was disappointment about not going to the Super Bowl. Now, expectations are higher. But every year there are different challenges."

The Rams go into this season with less buzz than they have in others. There's no Kurt Warner, no Marshall Faulk. The big offseason change was bringing in Linehan, who ultimately may direct a better team but who won't do it with the offensive flash of Martz. Maybe the best known name was new defensive coordinator Jim Haslett, the former Saints coach, but with Linehan keeping his assistants under wraps, he's barely been seen. With Linehan making the jump from assistant to head coach, he spent much of his offseason settling into his new job rather than drumming up interest in his team. (Rams players did their usual amount of community work in the offseason.)

On the field, the big addition was linebacker Will Witherspoon, who will help the unit but who won't sell many tickets. "Other than signing Dick Butkus,'' Wallace said, "I'm not sure you get a buzz from signing defensive players."

Attendance appeared to be down at training camp, though that may be attributable to scorching hot weather. Season tickets sales were down by about 1,500 to 58,000.

The Rams did have focus groups in the offseason to look at their game-day presentation, which has drawn complaints.

And the Rams' advertising slogan for the year is "I Believe," which is certainly the case in the front office when it comes to selling tickets. Shaw and Wallace are both firmly convinced that the season will sell out.

"I'd be very disappointed if we weren't (sold out for the season),'' Shaw said.