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In money game, owners' stakes get higher

The subject is money.

Forget blocking and tackling. In pro football these days, money is the name of the game.

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The owners are talking about finding ways of getting more of it because they keep paying more to the players, even though indications are the television gravy train is about to run off the tracks. Financial developments include:

* In Buffalo, where the team has led the league in attendance for four straight years, owner Ralph Wilson is talking about moving the team.

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* In New Orleans, Gov. Edwin Edwards has proposed giving the Saints a $50 million package of stadium improvements to lock them into a longer commitment.

* In Detroit, the Lions have given a three-year, $5.475 million offer sheet to restricted free-agent linebacker Pat Swilling of the New Orleans Saints. If the Saints don't match it by tomorrow, they lose him. Either way, the contract will lead to a new round of salary escalation for defensive players.

* In Dallas, the NFL owners will meet on Wednesday, which, appropriately enough, is April Fools' Day, to vote on a proposal to give a rebate to the TV networks. Despite the backing of commissioner Paul Tagliabue, it may be heading for defeat.

* The fourth year of Plan B comes to an end Wednesday with indications that the number of players signed will surpass last year's total of 139. They were closing in on 90 during the weekend, and there's usually a last-minute rush. There was speculation that signings might be down this year, but the teams apparently can't resist throwing money at these marginal players.

Let's take a close look at these developments and what the ramifications are for the sport.

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The stadium game: In New Orleans and Buffalo last week, there was much talk about stadium revenue. Edwards said he'll present a $50 million stadium bill to the legislature when it convenes tomorrow.

It would be financed by extending the bonds originally sold to build the Superdome, backed by a hotel-motel tax. Half the money would go toward adding 94 luxury suites to the current 132. The other half would go toward constructing a new Saints practice facility along with a 12,000-seat baseball stadium for a minor-league team and a public park.

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"The city of Oakland is willing to put up $600 million to get the former Oakland Raiders back. That ought to tell you something," Edwards said in explaining why he's proposing the deal that would extend the Saints' lease from 2006 to 2017.

Meanwhile, in Buffalo, Wilson is unhappy with his lease at Rich Stadium. The lease calls for $1.63 million in rent and $2.5 million in maintenance each year.

Wilson told the Buffalo News that if the county doesn't make concessions, "then they won't have a team in Buffalo. It wouldn't move right away, but eventually, along the line, the team wouldn't be competitive." The lease has six years to run.

The fact that an owner whose team has led the league in attendance four straight years is talking about moving is a sign of the times. Attendance isn't the big factor now. It's stadium revenue.

Which is why Baltimore's chances of getting an NFL team look good long-range, regardless of what happens in the expansion derby. If Baltimore is bypassed for expansion, an existing team could be lured here.

That's because Baltimore has the financing for a football-only stadium with all those revenue-enhancing items such as sky boxes and club seats.

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The football stadium also got a vote of confidence in the Maryland legislature last week when a bill proposed by Del. Jean W. Roesser, R-Montgomery, to cut $9.4 million from the stadium fund lost, 75-40. It showed that despite the budget crunch, the football stadium still has strong political support.

@4 It makes Baltimore a player in the stadium game.

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To match or not to match: Jim Finks, the general manager of the New Orleans Saints, has to decide by tomorrow whether to match the $1.825 million a year offer that Detroit made to Swilling or give him up and get two No. 1 draft picks from the Lions. The contract will make Swilling the second-highest-paid defensive player, behind Lawrence Taylor of the New York Giants, who averages $1.833 million a year.

Finks sounded as if he might pass on Swilling. "We hate to lose a good player, but it goes beyond that. We've got to look at things like keeping payroll integrity in the organization and whether we have a replacement," Finks said. He's also looking at what players the Saints might get with the Lions' first pick.

Even if the Saints pass, Swilling's contract will likely boost defensive salaries around the league.

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Just say no: At the meeting in Phoenix a week ago, Tagliabue tabled the proposal to give the TV networks an $8.5 million rebate, from $41 million to $32.5 million in 1993, in return for a two-year extension at the lower figure.

Tagliabue didn't have the 21 votes in Phoenix and hoped that 10 more days would give him a chance to do some lobbying. Even though the meeting in Dallas was pushed back from tomorrow to Wednesday so the sale of the New England Patriots could be put on the agenda, the lobbying apparently hasn't been too successful.

Carmen Policy, president of the San Francisco 49ers, who were supposed to be one of the swing votes, said last week the 49ers will vote no. Six other teams are definitely voting no and a seventh, Tampa Bay, is leaning that way.

The definite "no" votes are the Washington Redskins, the Philadelphia Eagles, the Dallas Cowboys, the Seattle Seahawks and both Los Angeles teams. The Miami Dolphins and the xTC Indianapolis Colts also may vote no. Eight no votes will kill the proposal.

Unless there's a sudden change, this will end the era in which the NFL owners considered themselves partners with the networks and lead to an era of confrontation between the league and the networks.

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The signing game: When the Plan B unprotected lists were announced Feb. 1, the conventional wisdom was that the crop of players wasn't as good as last year's class and that the signings wouldn't surpass last year's 139.

But now that almost 90 players have been signed, the figure may top last year's if there's the usual last-minute flurry of signings by the Wednesday deadline. And some figures are eye-popping.

The 49ers, for example, gave a $725,000-a-year contract to Cleveland defensive back Thane Gash, who's a household name only in his own household.

The Redskins have reportedly offered a $200,000 signing bonus to a San Diego defensive lineman named George Hinkle, and he hasn't signed yet because he has other offers.

This explains why the owners and players are locked in such a bitter battle over free agency for all the players. If the owners bid this way on Plan B players, imagine the bidding that would go on for the stars.

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Head of the class: Defensive lineman Steve Emtman of the University of Washington had an impressive workout for the NFL scouts last week, which should make him the first player selected in the draft next month.

"He's like another Merlin Olsen," said coach Ted Marchibroda of the Indianapolis Colts, who have the first pick in the draft.

But since the Colts have the first two picks, he's not the automatic top choice.

Emtman selected agent Marvin Demoff, who got the the Colts to trade John Elway a decade ago because he didn't want to play for the Colts. Heisman Trophy winner Desmond Howard selected agent Leigh Steinberg, who has a good relationship with the Colts and signed Jeff George there.

Steinberg is likely to try to make a deal for Howard with the Colts for the No. 1 pick, which would hurt Emtman's negotiating leverage if the Colts then took him second or traded the pick. There'll be a lot of wheeling and dealing in the next month before the draft.

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The Babe is back: Babe Laufenberg, the vagabond former NFL quarterback, made his World League debut with the Ohio Glory last week, losing to Orlando, 13-9, when Malcolm Frank intercepted one of Laufenberg's passes in the end zone with 48 seconds left.

Laufenberg, who's an announcer for the Cowboys and has given up hopes of playing in the NFL, didn't lose his sense of humor.

Noting his $25,000 World League salary, Laufenberg said he's willing to announce the games as well as play in them.

"I'll work for half price," he said.

:. Wait till Babe gets to try the Helmet Cam.

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Is spring football here to stay?: It was a good omen for the World League that it topped the NBA in ratings in 10 of the top 25 markets, including New York, in its opening weekend of action.


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