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Oilers working to ease grudge city holds against NFL

August 1, 1997

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) _ The Tennessee Oilers might feel very much at home Saturday when they take the field at the Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium.

Odds are they’ll see lots of empty seats.

The Oilers’ quick departure from Houston and the Astrodome, where they drew less than 27,000 in five different games last season, has left the team little time to sell tickets for 1997.

About 13,000 tickets were sold over the past five weeks for Saturday’s exhibition with the New Orleans Saints, and team officials are hoping for a big walkup crowd.

Memphis native Charles Yukon, who has two season tickets, called the low number of ticket sales unfortunate.

``But that sort of typifies professional sports in Memphis,″ Yukon said as he watched the Oilers practice Thursday at Rhodes College. ``Hopefully we can fill up the seats for the games.″

Part of the Oilers’ problem has been a city-wide grudge against the NFL for repeatedly rejecting Memphis for nearly two decades. Memphis lost its last bid for a team in 1993 when NFL owners chose Carolina, then Jacksonville.

The Oilers are trying to mend fences in Memphis and fill the Liberty Bowl, which seats 62,200. The team stopped in Jackson on Wednesday and met with fans. Players signed autographs with fans after each practice session Thursday.

A parade and pep rally on Memphis’ famous Beale Street was planned for today.

The two-day visit is the Oilers’ only chance to check out their temporary home this year. Training camp and the team’s practice facility are both in Nashville.

``This is an opportunity for us to go down there and practice at the Liberty Bowl and just familiarize ourselves with the city of Memphis,″ coach Jeff Fisher said before the trip.

Memphis businessman Bill Hall said the Oilers have been working real hard in the short time since the team’s move from Houston to soothe the angry feelings. He thinks Memphis will slowly warm up and support the team like it backed the Memphis Showboats of the old USFL.

``I think they’ll eventually break down and watch them play,″ he said. ``But in the beginning, I think it’ll take them a few games.″

Karen Hall, who has lived in Memphis for about a year, isn’t so forgiving.

``I think they should leave them in Memphis if they’re going to bring them to Memphis. They should stay here,″ she said.

The Oilers have hired Pepper Rodgers, one of the leaders of Memphis’ NFL bid and the coach of the old Showboats, as a vice president for Memphis operations. He’s been busy talking to groups and trying to convince Memphis to support the team.

But the Oilers’ quick getaway from Houston left the team with five weeks to sell tickets, a job that usually takes five months, before their first game.

The tickets didn’t reach the ticket office until late last week, and people didn’t start receiving their season tickets until Tuesday.

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