Philadelphia Eagles

By Joan Tupponce

Philadelphia Eagles fan Mike Carter can’t wait to carry his 4-year-old daughter to an Eagles game this year. He views that moment as a football rite of passage; a way to pass the torch to a new generation. Carter stepped into that role when, as a boy in January 1981, he sat with his family and watched the Eagles take on the Oakland Raiders in Super Bowl XV. The gut-based electricity rocketed through Carter’s body like a game-winning “Hail Mary” pass to the end zone.”I was hooked,” he says. “My uncles and cousins had followed the team since they were kids. I would see them get really excited and that started it for me. Once you choose the team, it’s your team.”Carter, an 18-year season-ticket holder, represents the quintessential Eagles fan ? passionate, intense and loyal to the core, regardless of win/loss statistics. Fans may not like what they see unfold on the field but they continue to fill the stadium, year after year, generation after generation.The numbers tell the story. The Eagles have a fan base of 6 million. Forty to 50 percent of that fan base lives outside of Philly. “You can’t take [those numbers] for granted,” says Eagles chief operating officer Don Smolenski. “The fans are the lifeblood of the organization.”Currently, the team has approximately 40,000 people on the season-ticket waiting list. Renewal rates for season tickets are 99.67 percent, leaving fans that have been on the list for more than 20 years with little hope of making the cut. When you take into account the fact that every home game has been sold out since 1999, when Coach Andy Reid started with the team, you’ll understand the impact that Philly fans can have on the success of the Eagles brand. Philly fans mean business and we’re not just talking about their feverish demeanor at game time.The Eagles brand began building a fan base in 1933 when the Frankford Yellowjackets received an NFL franchise. The club was named the Eagles as a way of paying homage to the symbol of the New Deal’s National Recovery Act. The team played its first game against the Chicago Bears.This year the 77- year-old team is celebrating the 50th anniversary of its 1960 NFL championship, when the Eagles beat the Green Bay Packers 17-13. Since then, the team has made it to the Super Bowl only twice, in 1981 and 2005, both times failing to earn the elusive Super Bowl title and coveted ring.In 1994, the team gained new momentum after being purchased by current owner Jeffrey Lurie. He and his wife, Christina, have been instrumental in building the brand. The respect and appreciation that fans today have for the team bleeds into the organization. “Our standards are high,” Smolenski says. “Our culture is one of success. We are here to win the championship and that is what drives everybody in the organization. That’s what the fans want.”A Super Bowl win isn’t the only thing that fans want. They want to set the record straight. Many feel they get a bad rap, especially from the media. Take, for example, the December 1968 game against the Minnesota Vikings. The media had a heyday bashing Eagles fans for their irreverence toward Santa. “Everyone likes to bring up the fact that Philadelphia fans are the same fans that threw snowballs at Santa,” Carter says.Carter’s account puts a different perspective on the event. The season had gone poorly, with the Eagles about to tie with two other teams for the worst season ever. There was a foot of snow on the ground at game time. “It was cold and miserable,” Carter says. Santa was supposed to make an appearance at halftime and throw out presents, but the jolly old man was a no-show.The people responsible for the halftime show found a fan in the seats who had worn an old, tattered, ill-fitting Santa suit to the game and put him on the field. “The guy comes out and a few people threw snowballs,” Carter says. “The one thing that gets lost in the story is that you had more than 60,000 people walk through a foot of snow to watch a team with a lousy season play in bad conditions. It was a sold-out stadium. That shows you how dedicated fans are through thick and thin.”Because they are so knowledgeable when it comes to the game, Eagles fans demand player dedication. If they don’t see it, they don’t hesitate to let the players know how they feel by booing. “It happens,” Carter admits. “They are very educated, sophisticated fans. They know all the rules of the game. If a fan can detect a player is putting himself above the team, he gets booed. If a fan thinks a player is not putting his best game on the field, he will get booed. All that people want is hustle, effort and for players to represent the people of Philadelphia [on the field] the way they want to be represented.”Each of the games is an event, with fans pulling into the parking lot for a day of tailgating at 8 a.m. “It’s not just a chance to see the game,” Smolenski says. “It’s a community, a brotherhood. You have 60,000-plus people, music, energy and fireworks.”To get fans pumped, the organization pipes in a “Rocky” montage before game time. On the opening kickoff, fireworks erupt around the rim of the stadium, lighting the sky with thousands of beads of excitement. “We are not always going to win 12 games, but we can touch the fans so they have a great experience,” Smolenski says.As far as fan loyalty, the Eagles organization “never takes for granted what it has in place,” says Tim McDermott, senior vice president and chief marketing officer. “We do have something pretty remarkable. The passion here is different from another city or another team. You are going to hear the good and you are going to hear the bad. That’s what makes Philly, Philly.”This year, the organization has decided to put the fans at the center of its advertising. It will feature the photos of several fans on home-game tickets. “I truly believe that the fans are the ones who define our brand. They are the true owners of the team,” McDermott says. “We want to show them that they are valuable members of the community.”Research conducted by the organization shows what Carter knows intuitively: Eagles fans begin supporting the team between the ages of 6 and 9. That’s what Carter knows intuitively: Eagles fans begin supporting the team between the ages of 6 and 9. That’s why the Eagles organization is developing its youth market. “We have the largest kids club in all of sports,” McDermott says.The Eagles have also built their brand through their community partnerships. Since 2006, Philadelphia Eagles players have volunteered more than 1,000 hours in the community. In the past 10 years, the Eagles have donated more than $6 million to nonprofits. The Eagles Youth Partnership has spent more than $1 million improving Philadelphia playgrounds.This past year, the organization adopted the Wister School in the historic Germantown area of Philadelphia. The elementary school sits in an area where drugs and violence are commonplace. It had no playground or equipment before the partnership. “This was a ‘no safe play’ area,” says Principal Donna Smith. “It’s now a safe haven, more like a community center. It is pulling the community together, which is something we needed.”The Eagles not only created a playground complete with basketball courts and exercise equipment but they also helped paint murals around the school. In addition, they brought first-grade students to Lincoln Financial Field every week for 16 weeks for spelling activities and one-on-one “reading buddy” sessions. “The reading levels jumped up at least five levels,” Smith says. “The kids’ confidence and self-esteem also jumped up. They blossomed because of the reading buddies.”The children at Wister aren’t the only people seeing a change this year. The Eagles are also retooling. “With change comes opportunity,” Smolenski says. “If you don’t change, you can become complacent and stagnant. Every year there is change. Sometimes it isn’t easy. Being open to [it] allows you to ask questions and push people.”For Carter, the last few seasons were like watching reruns of “Seinfeld” on television. “You knew what was going to happen,” he says. “You knew they would win nine to 11 games and they would tease you and get to the championships and then fall on their face.”This year, without longtime quarterback Donovan McNabb at the helm, it’s anybody’s guess as to what will happen. Carter, like other Eagles fans, was surprised when his team traded McNabb to the rival Washington Redskins, handing the quarterback throne to Kevin Kolb. “I was a McNabb fan,” he says. “Before they signed Donovan there were a lot of years of bad football. He brought a winning attitude.”McDermott doesn’t believe in making any one player the centerpiece of a brand like the Eagles. “Donovan was a part of the brand, but he was not the brand,” he says. “You can take out Donovan’s name and put another name in there. Players come and go. Stadiums change. The thing that is the most consistent is the fan, the stories they have; that’s the constant.”Eagles General Manager Howie Roseman hopes the team’s “talented young nucleus” will power to the Super Bowl. He views all the changes as positive. “If you don’t take risks and aren’t aggressive, you can’t win championships,” he says. “We have confidence in Kevin [Kolb started with the Eagles in 2007] and we wish Donovan the best.”To Carter and other Eagles fans, the game is more than a game. “It’s almost like a religion,” he says. “People make sacrifices to buy the tickets. They may even take out a loan. That’s how important it is. In other cities like Kansas City, St. Louis and Los Angeles, they see the sport as a diversion, a recreation. In Philadelphia, it’s something we take very seriously. It’s a way of life.”