NFL owners are rethinking their long-standing ban on corporate ownership. It's an idea that has been kicked around for a long time, but seems to be getting extra attention this year, now that a salary cap is in place to prevent a corporate spendathon for players.
If the ban were to fall quickly -- and many owners think that's unlikely -- it could give a boost to the expansion bid of Charlotte, N.C., where corporate money could solve nettlesome financing problems.
Charlotte is competing with Baltimore, St. Louis, Memphis and Jacksonville for two new teams the league says it wants to add. The Charlotte-based banking giant NationsBank is a strong booster of the city's bid.
"I think it's something that is inevitable," said New York Giants owner Wellington Mara.
But, he added, "We've been talking about it for 25 years."
The NFL is the only major league that prohibits corporations owning teams. It is growing increasingly common in other sports with media and entertainment companies leading the charge.
In baseball, for example, the Chicago Cubs are owned by the Tribune Co., a media conglomerate, and the Atlanta Braves by the Turner Broadcasting Co.
"The fear among old-guard owners is that it would drive up player salaries," said Paul J. Much, senior managing director of Houlihan Lokey Howard & Zukin, a financial services company active in sports issues.
But the player salary cap, included in the recently negotiated labor agreement, removes fears of a big company coming in and buying up all the best players, Much said.
With franchise values rising, the days of a single, rich investor writing a check for a team are numbered. And with several owners rumored to be thinking of selling, opening the bidding to corporate buyers probably would drive the price up, Much said.
He acknowledged the value of his franchise likely would be enhanced, but he said it's not clear that the spending cap removes fears of competing against better capitalized teams. Many team functions, such as management salaries, are not constrained by the cap, he said.
Some owners also are reluctant to submit to the financial disclosure that ownership by a public corporation would entail.
But Pat Bowlen, owner of the Denver Broncos and a member of the finance committee considering the issue, said: "We're really talking about private corporations as opposed to public ones. So don't get it confused with Coca-Cola."
He declined to predict how quickly the league would act, but said, "It could happen at these meetings." The owners will be here throughout most of the week in their annual policy-setting meetings.
A league official, however, said it was unlikely to be resolved while the NFL still is digesting a revolutionary labor agreement and trying to negotiate a television contract.
However, it could happen quickly enough to affect expansion, said the official, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "There's a growing number of clubs that are interested in exploring corporate ownership," the official said.
The league has been reviewing its ownership policies since it was discovered two years ago that the San Francisco 49ers had been quietly transferred to a corporation controlled by owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr. He was fined $500,000 by the league.
And a former owner of the New England Patriots has sued the league over the issue. William H. Sullivan claims he was unfairly prevented in 1987 from selling a portion of his team to an investment bank that would have sold shares publicly.
"I would have no problem with full [public] ownership," said Philadelphia Eagles owner Norman Braman. "I think the people that run large businesses could be good for the league. I'd welcome it. Many of these people are good marketers."
Opposed are owners such as Ed McCaskey, whose Chicago Bears are still in the hands of the founding family.
"I see a lot of pitfalls in it," McCaskey said. For example, a team's interests could fall into conflict with a corporate owner's other businesses, he said.
Expansion, scheduled to be settled with a selection of cities this fall, probably will come first, he said.
One expansion official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, predicted that the current owners would want to have first shot at finding a corporate buyer, rather than letting the expansion teams get them.
"They don't want the expansion guys cherry-picking the Coca-Colas," the official said.
If the ban were dropped soon, it probably would delay expansion, the official said.
All of the expansion-hopeful cities -- including Baltimore -- have corporate leaders involved in their bids who presumably could inject corporate dollars. But Charlotte, which is trying to privately finance the team and a new stadium, seems to have the most to gain.
Mark Richardson, a leader of Charlotte's effort, acknowledged that some of its current investors could bring corporate dollars to the deal, if allowed.
But, he said, "We put our group together to participate under the current rules."