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Bengals' incentive for season ticket holders? A box of popcorn


Dear Season Ticket Holder:

The Cincinnati Bengals want you back.

Actually, they wanted you back before now, before a promising season erupted like a Whoopee cushion, giving you every reason not to come back, ever. They wanted you back, back in August, just after they'd signed Terrell Owens to marry Chad Ochocinco in a civil ceremony aired live on Dancing With The Stars. Or maybe it was the T.Ocho Show. Whatever.

To that end, the Bengals put together an incentive package so overwhelming we hesitate to publish it for fear the country's wireless network might collapse under the call-now strain. In August, before the Bengals were 2-11, losers of 10 straight and owners of a team-town relationship the envy of Bob Irsay and Baltimore, the Bengals offered their lapsed season ticket holders a voucher good for a million dollars, a new Cadillac and a month on Bora Bora.

They did not.

It was a voucher for a new vacuum cleaner, a multi-tool and a Tuesday night in Jersey City.

Not even.

How 'bout a box of popcorn?

From a letter sent by the team, to former season ticket holders:

"After another excellent draft class, the addition of Antonio Bryant, and arrival of Terrell Owens, the 2009 AFC North champions are looking to have an even better 2010 season, and we would love for you to join us again! For a limited time only, if you purchase new Season Tickets, you will receive a voucher for a free box of popcorn. ..''

Imagine the insanity in the Queen City the day those letters arrived. Erstwhile Season Ticket Guy, slamming redial, hoping beyond hope to get his free box of popcorn. Sobbing silently when he finally gets through and is told all the vouchers are gone. Pondering the afterlife. Leaving a note:

"All I wanted was my free box of popcorn.''

Insiders tell me if the Bengals had upped the ante to a box of Cracker Jack, the city would have declared martial law.

Let's see if we understand: In August, the Bengals hadn't won a playoff game in 19 years. In that span, they'd had two winning seasons. The cheapest season seats went for $60 a game. That's $480 for the season. For that, popcorn.

Last August, Forbes magazine judged the Bengals franchise to be worth $905 million. A decade ago, the team moved into a $600 million publicly financed stadium. It sold out 57 games in a row, which brands the fans as loyal or dull or both.

Let them eat popcorn.

Not unlimited popcorn.

One box.

For a limited time only.

Not long after the letter went out and the club got laughed at again, it issued a pronouncement that it was merely hopping on the T.O. hypewagon, playing on Owens' slogan, "Get your popcorn ready.''

Well, of course. The point was, with any other organization you could name, no explanation would be necessary. With the Bengals the explanation was not only instructive, but required.

Understand: Cincinnati is a civil burg. It is Philly, if Philly were Sunday morning in the confessional. 'Nati fans have been bludgeoned for a generation, Reds and Bengals, to an extent that when their teams accomplish mediocrity, the fans plan parade routes. It takes a lot to make them mad.

The popcorn letter really didn't help things.

Of course, it wasn't the first faux pas from the Bengals, whose definition of "fan experience'' is somewhat different than most. In the early 90s, in the locker room immediately after another 3-13 season, Bengals staffers distributed a press release announcing an increase in ticket prices.

Last season, on a sweltering September day when the concession stands ran out of bottled water, they began offering tap water for $3 a cup.

In 2004, a group of season ticketholders sued the team, claiming they were being forced to buy tickets they didn't want. Nothing says GO TEAM! quite like fans suing to get out of buying tickets.

Several years ago, the team sent a letter to its fans, seeking input on their "experience'' at the stadium -- paraphrasing here -- not including the game action itself.

The video the Bengals show just before the game has not been changed since the stadium opened. Other places, team greats are acknowledged around the facility. At Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, part of the concourse is devoted to a shrine to Steelers greats. No such luck in Cincinnati. You can buy stuff at the gift shop, though. Two weeks ago, when the gametime temperature rested beneath freezing, they were offering $5 off short-sleeved T-shirts. For real.

When the Bengals drive inside the opponent's 20-yard line, it is announced they have "entered the Heinz Red Zone,'' which is wildly amusing to the thousands of Pittsburgh Steelers fans routinely in attendance.

And so on. Right now, Bengals fans love their team as much as Al Capone loved auditors. Things are not good. Probably, not even free popcorn (one box, limited time) would help.

One longtime fan posted on my blog this week, "No recognition, other than a cheesy bumper sticker, [for] being a 25-year season ticket holder. Wouldn't some kind of acknowledgement of their most loyal [customers] be kind of cool?''

To which a later poster replied, "Twenty-five-year season ticket holder? Come down to the Bengals main office, tell them your situation and let [them] brand 'I'm a complete idiot' on your forehead.''

Wrote another, "The answer to end this madness involves following the teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King. The fans should walk onto the field, lay down and start singing 'We Shall Overcome.'''

That could be good. Get your popcorn ready