PALM DESERT, Calif. -- It's half-past 8 and the sun has lon since slipped behind the distant San Jacinto mountains. A four-piece band has just swung into a milky rendition of "Surfing USA," drowning out the clinking of ice and glasses from the poolside bars.
David Seldin, coordinator of Jacksonville's effort to land an NFL expansion team, has spotted a VIP among the 100 or so football officials at the outdoor reception. He motions discretely but urgently for his newest investor -- a shoe magnate with homes in three states -- and soon has him exchanging pleasantries with an influential team official.
Across the patio, NFL president Neil Austrian is heading for the hors d'oeuvres table but finds the way briefly blocked by Malcolm Glazer, a Florida-based investor hoping to land a franchise for Baltimore. Glazer, two sons in tow and wearing a "Give Baltimore the Ball" name tag, asks if Austrian has been able to fit any golf into the official business of the NFL's annual policy-setting meetings here. He hasn't.
Over his shoulder, Baltimore booster and Legg Mason chairman Raymond "Chip" Mason weaves his way through the crowd to pump the hand of San Diego Chargers owner Alex Spanos, an acquaintance and a member of the league's expansion committee.
Welcome to the Big Schmooze: a humbling procession of handshakes and small talk by people looking for a ticket into the exclusive NFL fraternity.
There are five finalists for America's most coveted municipal prizes: the two teams the NFL says it wants to add. Baltimore is competing with Jacksonville, Fla., Memphis, Tenn., Charlotte, N.C., and St. Louis. A decision is expected this fall.
As part of what may be the world's most successful sports league, the new teams promise to bring their host cities millions of dollars in commerce and invaluable international prestige.
It is no wonder, then, that the cities have devoted millions of dollars and sent representatives to suffer the indignities of hotel hallways to attract a franchise.
With rules put in place two years ago to limit a spiraling war of hospitality suites and marketing extravaganzas -- such as the ice cream bar St. Louis once sponsored in a hotel pool -- the competitors have had to tone down their appeals.
Gone are Baltimore's popular crab cake receptions, the dTC Arkansas caviar handed out by Memphis, and the free rides in the "Sold on St. Louis" hot-air balloon moored on the hotel lawn. Never again will Jacksonville rent MGM Studio's Orlando theme park and shuttle in team owners by limousine for a night of private rides and catered lobster, as it did three years ago.
After an especially unseemly display at a 1990 owners meeting, the one in which owners had to pass through a mock "Cafe St. Louis" to get to their meeting rooms, officials clamped down, barring hospitality suites and direct lobbying of owners in their home cities.
Now the sale is more low-key, but no less active. And with the ban on visiting owners, the brief, poolside encounters at these owners meetings take on extra importance.
Last week, for example, expansion was a relatively minor item on the agenda at the meetings, but all five finalist cities flew in representatives to work the hotel lobbies, troll through the lounges and generally see and be seen.
"They are expanding the most exclusive club in the world. They should know who you are. But it should be a business decision, not who has the best crab cakes," said Rick Catlett, a consultant with Jacksonville's bid.
He said he didn't mind the competition. He's the one, after all, who arranged the MGM blockbuster, who's flown in planeloads of red snapper and lobster, and who one year set up a fashion show by super-model Kim Alexis for team owners' wives.
"It just got out of hand. You had lobster on Monday, crab cakes on Tuesday and San Antonio had a fajita bar on Wednesday," Catlett said.
This year Jacksonville focused on getting its new investor introduced, and to just be there if questions came up, he said.
There were no formal presentations. The cities were told attendance was not mandatory -- but all showed up. Two of Baltimore's prospective investment groups, headed by Leonard "Boogie" Weinglass and Tom Clancy, stayed home.
Max Muhleman, a consultant for Charlotte, said he doesn't think merely being seen is going to help much at this point.
"We attend these meetings to get information and because we're afraid not to, frankly," said Muhleman, a veteran of several sports expansions.
"There is no set way to do these things. What works for a corporate relocation may not work for football, and therein lies the artistry," he said.
"People get to know them and see that they are nice guys. But it's not going to be a question of lobbying or that they are nice guys," he said.
The expansion cities are reluctant to reveal much about their strategy. But some of it is obvious: subtle pleasantries are preferred over direct sales pitches (leave those for the scheduled presentations). Don't be a pest.
And above all, keep it tasteful; the "prospects" include some of the richest men in America.
Baltimore's chief booster, Herbert J. Belgrad, is one of the most visible hallway denizens. He sometimes is the only expansion hopeful greeting owners in the mornings as they head into meetings.
A lawyer and chairman of the Maryland Stadium Authority, he wears a suit coat and tie and employs a button-down style of handshaking, waves and quick, polite questions about owners' families.
"For the most part it's see and be seen, open up lines of communication," Belgrad said. "You don't get a chance to sit down and talk about our financing or facilities."
At one point, however, Chicago Bears president Mike McCaskey, who is trying to get Chicago to renovate Soldier Field, came up to ask Belgrad about how Oriole Park at Camden Yards was financed.
Then there was Pepper Rodgers, the gregarious spokesman for Memphis. A former college and U.S. Football League coach, Rodgers, dressed in shorts and a Federal Express Orange Bowl hat, had plenty of familiar backs to slap (Federal Express chairman Fred Smith is the lead investor in Memphis' bid).
"Hey Jimmy, how are ya? Congratulations, man!" he shouted.
St. Louis was in the unique position of having representatives both inside and outside of league meetings. The head of its expansion group, James Busch Orthwein, owns but plans to sell the New England Patriots.
Leaving nothing to chance, however, the group brought in another investor: retired Hall of Fame running back Walter Payton, who sought out familiar faces.
"I think I'm here to show them there's an interest," Payton said. "At this point, all the smoke is gone, and if there's not a fire there, you're out of luck."