Verdict foils city's perfectly timed play


When a legion of former Colts took the field at halftime durin the NFL preseason game at Memorial Stadium last month, it represented a carefully orchestrated crescendo.

NFL officials, scouting a site for two new teams, were there, fresh from a series of meetings and events designed to make the case for Baltimore.

Observers marveled at the timing, which organizers said was part luck and part planning. Orioles tickets were selling faster than the latest Nikes, the sold-out preseason game was the only one of the year hosted by an expansion-hopeful city, and a bid in Charlotte, N.C., appeared to be foundering on financing troubles.

It was as if all the elements of Baltimore's eight-year effort -- the emotional, economic and political components -- were coming together on the eve of the NFL's decision.

Then the jury came in.

Jurors in the NFL antitrust trial in Minneapolis returned a verdict Thursday night in favor of a group of players suing the league over free-agency rules.

It had been widely predicted that a players' court victory would --, or at least delay, expansion.

The penalties prescribed by the jurors are a fraction of what the players asked for, leading the NFL to claim victory. But the verdict is an unmistakable order for change, which will take time to accomplish.

The impact on Baltimore's effort is unclear, but even the most optimistic boosters say the timing of expansion will be slowed -- robbing the city of the momentum that seemed to be moving its way.

The league had said during the trial that a loss would destroy it, that the financial viability of the sport would be imperiled. After the verdict, NFL officials suggested a less-restrictive form of free agency might be acceptable, and encouraged the players to meet them at the bargaining table.

But any easing of football's rigid rules on players moving between teams can only increase labor costs that have, until now, lagged far behind baseball and basketball, sports with fewer restrictions.

Until those costs can be calculated, it is unlikely the league will be able to fix a franchise fee for new investors or that investors would jump in until they know how profitable the sport will be.

"When you buy a business you should have a pretty good idea of how it's going to perform," said Tom Clancy, the Maryland-based author and one of three lead investors interested in owning a football team in Baltimore.

Settling the costs can be accomplished in two ways: bargaining or litigation. The choice is one of order or chaos, and Baltimore's interests would be far better served by order.

But millionaire team owners and millionaire players in this sport have shown an historic inability to keep themselves out of court. The league could appeal this ruling, a process that could take years.

Meanwhile, about 1,000 players who have been prevented from changing teams could be expected to file their own suits based on the Minneapolis jury's ruling, according to an attorney for the NFL Players Association.

"This case established the liability. The only question is how much damages," the attorney said.

Other players entering the college draft also could sue, claiming the draft rules prevented them from earning as much as they could if teams had to bid for their services.

The players will likely seek an injunction from the Minneapolis judge that will largely determine the extent of their victory.

If the owners use the trial as an excuse to abandon expansion, it is because they never really wanted to expand at all, the attorney said.

"The only thing that changes within the NFL is the excuses. They don't want to expand at all," the attorney said.

The last time the league expanded, it did so under similar circumstances: a collective bargaining agreement was held up by a fight over free agency.

Baltimore's best hope is that neither side will be emboldened by the case to press its advantage ruthlessly. If cool heads prevail, the two sides could return to the bargaining table they have visited frequently over the past year and try to work out a compromise.

Bryan Glazer, the son of Malcolm Glazer, another potential owner for a team here, said, "We're still committed to Baltimore no matter what happens. I think since neither side came out with a clear-cut victory, it's in everybody's best interests to settle and move forward."

It could be argued that the uncertainty did more to delay expansion than this verdict, said Herbert Belgrad, chairman of -- the Maryland Stadium Authority and a leader of the city's efforts to get a team.

"With a cloud like this hanging over your head, you tend not to be receptive to doing things like adding two teams to the league," Belgrad said.

Now the cloud has been lifted, allowing both sides to more clearly see the battleground. This should relieve them of any reason to delay negotiations, he said.

Anything less than successful negotiations can only work to Baltimore's disadvantage.

Charlotte is busy putting together a new financing plan for its stadium -- one likely to include the name of a sponsor, probably NationsBank, on the stadium in exchange for a multimillion-dollar fee -- and more time aids their marketing forces.

And the momentum crafted by Baltimore can only slow.

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