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Oilers quickly forgotten in Houston

December 19, 1997

HOUSTON (AP) _ The Oilers called Houston home for 37 years, but you’d never know it looking around town nowadays.

Many fans stopped paying attention last year when the team struck a deal to move to Nashville. And as the Oilers finish their first season in Tennessee, they have even fewer followers here.

Oilers merchandise is hard to find in stores, the local NBC affiliate has televised just six of their games and the newspaper treats them almost as if they were any other team.

That’s quite a change for a city that once was so in love with the Oilers that it filled the Astrodome to greet the team after a playoff loss.

``Out of sight, increasingly out of mind,″ says Charlie Pallilo, host of a sports talk show on KTRH-AM, which until this year was the Oilers’ flagship radio station.

Proof of Houston’s lack of interest was most evident after the Oilers’ 27-14 Thanksgiving Day drubbing of the Dallas Cowboys.

``The night after that, we had maybe one Oiler-related call,″ says Pallilo, whose radio station aired Oilers games from 1991 to 1996.

Not long ago, blue hats and T-shirts and anything with ``Luv Ya Blue″ written on it could be found all over town. Now, none of the 20 Academy Sports & Outdoors stores in the Houston area sells Tennessee Oilers garb, buyer Jake Slight said.

Other stores also got rid of Oilers merchandise.

``When they announced the decision to leave, we actually cleared it out at 50 percent off of retail,″ said Patrick Workman, manager of a huge Oshman’s Sporting Goods. ``It just didn’t sell.″

A Houston Chronicle survey found that less than one-fourth of its readers wanted the newspaper to continue making the Oilers their No. 1 NFL team, and interest will only decrease.

``Next year it will be almost totally diminished,″ said John McClain, the newspaper’s Oilers beat writer for 18 years who still writes a weekly ``Luved Ya Blue″ column for the team’s faithful.

On television, Oilers ratings in Houston were as low as 6.4 (103,955 homes) and an 11 share (11 percent of households using televisions were watching the Oilers) on Nov. 2 against Jacksonville.

No wonder KPRC-TV passed on so many games this fall, including Sunday’s finale against Pittsburgh.

``We made some judgments based on viewer demand,″ said station general manager Steve Wasserman.

Fans couldn’t even count on sports bars to show Oilers games on their biggest televisions.

Only one matchup this season earned ``featured game″ status, allowing it to be shown on an 18-foot television at SRO Sports Bar & Cafe. Other games have been shown on just one 13-foot television.

However, over at The End Zone, those left longing for the Oilers can go to the bar and commiserate with bartender Chris Durrett, who remains so devoted that she still has Houston Oilers towels hanging on a bedroom wall.

``I’m not going to change my pennants or my hats or my T-shirts or my pompoms,″ she said.

Durrett has a compatriot in Chris Lockridge, who was so frustrated not to be able to get Oilers games on the tube that he bought a satellite dish.

Lockridge’s withdrawal has been severe. He even traveled to Tennessee to watch the team play on his sixth wedding anniversary _ while his wife sat at home in Houston.

``I knew the Oilers before I knew her,″ said Lockridge, a 32-year-old pharmacy worker who even named his son Derrick after the team’s logo.

Other football fans in Houston apparently got their fix this fall on Saturdays by going to Rice University or University of Houston games.

Rice had its best average attendance since 1972 (35,509 fans), while Houston drew an average of 19,678, up from 17,551 last year and 16,644 in 1995.

But pro football will return to the nation’s fourth-largest city if Houston businessmen Robert McNair and Chuck Watson get their way.

They’re working on a stadium-financing plan to present to the league in March. They’d prefer to get an expansion team but they’d also be willing to buy an existing team and move it to Houston.

The Oilers left because they were unhappy with the Astrodome. McNair and Watson are studying whether to build a new stadium, renovate the Astrodome or fix up Rice Stadium.

If Houston gets a new team, Lockridge will go to games but won’t be the rabid fan he was when the Oilers were around, filling half his garage with their memorabilia.

``They might move again,″ he says. ``You never know nowadays.″

End Adv for weekend editions, Dec. 20-21

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