CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- For the past 12 months, the boosters in this city of glass towers and blue-suited bankers appeared to be on the verge of their greatest victory: Pro football, in all its network glory, was as good as here.
All the pieces were in place. Rich investors. Powerful bankers. Twenty-five acres of downtown were cleared, a jail and a nursing home moved, and 110,000 cubic yards of dirt piled into the oval shape of a stadium.
But, like a wobbly touchdown pass, football might be slipping from Charlotte's grip -- and into the reach of Baltimore.
Last-minute questions have emerged, boosting Baltimore in the competition for one of two expansion teams the National Football League is scheduled to award in October. Five cities are competing: Baltimore, Charlotte, St. Louis, Memphis, Tenn., and Jacksonville, Fla.
St. Louis -- the biggest television market without a team -- seems to be the most likely winner. Baltimore, with the next-largest market and a new stadium to offer, has seemed to many to be in competition with Charlotte for the second team.
But now even the officials behind Charlotte's bid say their initial plan to privately finance the team and the stadium can't compete with Baltimore, which has the state funding approved to build a stadium adjacent to Oriole Park at Camden Yards. Charlotte has a new plan in the works that could take another month or two to finalize, pushing it perilously close to October, when the NFL is expected to announce the winning cities.
"It seems like there have been questions raised about the Charlotte bid that weren't there before, and that puts Baltimore in a better light," said Allison Hawk, a spokeswoman for St. Louis' football bid.
In fact, a number of national commentators have begun to rank Baltimore ahead of Charlotte, a reversal of just a few months ago. Insiders generally scoff at such rankings, but one NFL official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said, "Baltimore has everybody's attention."
The private option
When Charlotte entered the expansion fray five years ago, it wasestimated a stadium could be built for $75 million. And nobody expected a franchise fee of more than $100 million. The latest stadium estimates are $160 million, and the NFL privately has warned investors its franchise fee could hit $150 million. Start-up costs add another $25 million.
Charlotte's ownership group, a big-money partnership led by ex-Colt and fast-food magnate Jerry Richardson, had planned to finance everything privately.
But the reality of the task sank in over recent months, in part because of questions from the NFL. No one in modern sports history has privately financed a major-league team and a stadium at the same time.
The problem would be the mortgage payments on the stadium. Ever since Dolphins owner Joe Robbie obtained a waiver to build his namesake stadium in Miami, the NFL reluctantly has allowed a team to keep certain luxury seat fees to pay off stadium debt.
Usually those fees are included in ticket revenues that are split 60-40, with the visiting teams getting the 40 percent. If Charlotte is forced to devote that money to mortgage payments, less money would go to the other teams. Such fees can be $1,000 a seat per season. Spread over 6,000 seats, that adds up to $6 million a year. The visiting team's share would be $2.4 million a season, including preseason games.
"Obviously, it is a handicap. But other cities have handicaps, too," Atlanta Falcons owner Rankin Smith Sr. recently told the Charlotte Observer. "All of the cities that are trying to be an expansion city have their pluses and minuses. Some have more than others."
Taking another look
In Baltimore, the stadium is being financed by lottery-backed bonds, and the team would pay a relatively modest rent and share in the revenues from concession sales. St. Louis also is financing its stadium publicly, through bond sales.
Charlotte's group will announce a new financing plan in September, said Mark Richardson, son of Jerry and general manager of Richardson Sports, the partnership formed in 1987 to bring the team to Charlotte.
Options include finding other investors to finance the stadium as a separate entity; seeking benefactors to contribute, and/or selling multimillion-dollar corporate sponsorships, possibly in exchange for naming the stadium after a company.
Others have used these methods, though rarely on this scale. Target Center in Minneapolis and America West Center in Phoenix was built with contributions from its namesake corporation. A corporate foundation provided $25 million of the $77.5 million cost of the Indianapolis Hoosier Dome, and corporate support totaling $125 million went into the Toronto SkyDome.
"I think that's [public financing] a real advantage for Baltimore and St. Louis," said Max Muhleman, president of Muhleman Marketing, Inc., and a consultant for Charlotte.
The NFL is especially edgy about debt after watching Victor Kiam founder in red ink this year before selling the New England Patriots. And with television revenues expected to go down and player salaries to go up, solvency will be important to the league's expansion committee, he said.
It's probably too late to seek public financing. And there seems to be little interest. The city, county and state pledged $55 million to acquire the land and ready it for the stadium.
"That was the deal. We would provide the land and the private sector said, 'We'll provide the stadium.' There are private resources here that can step up to the plate," said Charlotte Mayor Richard Vinroot.
Don't fret, said Muhleman. Nothing can compete with a publicly financed stadium, but Charlotte's other assets should compensate, he said.
"You've got a sort of Gehrig and Ruth going to bat on this," Muhleman said of Richardson and his chief banker, NationsBank Corp. president Hugh McColl Jr. NationsBank, now among the country's biggest banks, is based in Charlotte.
Though not an investor, McColl is a powerful backer of the NFL bid, and NationsBank has a close relationship with the NFL. The bank provided a line of credit to the league during its last strike, and, more recently, negotiated the league's first general purpose line of credit, backed by television revenues, for teams to dip into for operating expenses.
The circle game
Charlotte's emergence as a possible NFL town is remarkable. Despite recent growth, the city has a population of only about 400,000, putting it 35th among American cities, behind Tucson, Ariz. When neighboring towns are thrown in, the metro area ranks 42nd. Baltimore, with 750,000 residents, is the 13th-largest city with the 17th-largest metro area.
North and South Carolina rank among the bottom half of states in average income and in the top half in the percentage of citizens living in poverty. "Places Rated Almanac" in 1989 pegged metro Charlotte as the 79th most desirable place to live in the country and Baltimore the 17th.
So how did Charlotte come so far, giving Baltimore, a city some consider the cradle of the NFL, such a run for its money?
The answer may lie with Muhleman, sports marketing guru, and his magic circles.
From his spacious office here, adorned with mementos of a career nurturing fledgling sports endeavors, the ex-newspaperman has changed the way people look at Charlotte. Through imaginative use of maps and statistics, he has formed -- on paper, at least -- a thriving urban center out of the pine-studded Carolina piedmont.
He can draw circles on a map and show you that the people living within 50, 100 and 150 miles of Charlotte represent the nation's largest market without the NFL. There are 9.6 million people living within 150 miles -- compared with 21 million, and two NFL teams -- in the same range around Baltimore.
And he'll show you with surveys and college game attendance that people in this part of the country don't blink at driving two hours to attend a sporting event.
But there's a problem: Football teams traditionally depend on fans in the immediate area for support. On average, 75 percent of NFL season-ticket holders live within 25 miles of their team, and only 5 percent live more than 75 miles away.
The money of television
And what about television, that money machine that drives the NFL? Of the top 20 markets, all have football teams except St. Louis. Baltimore -- where Redskins games are regularly aired -- is ranked 22nd. Charlotte is ranked 31st.
Muhleman has a circle for this, too: If you combine the five nearest Carolina markets with Charlotte you have a "consolidated market" that would rank No. 3, behind New York and Los Angeles.
He tried the same pitch with the NBA, and it worked. The Hornets, playing out of the new, 24,000-seat Charlotte Coliseum, have sold out their last 153 games despite losing two-thirds of the time since the team was formed in 1988.
"Essentially, all the major metro markets are served, Muhleman said. "The future of expansion in the leagues is going to be regional population centers."