The competition for the NFL's two expansion teams, which has been characterized as a three-way race, has moved closer to that with the withdrawal of long shot Jacksonville, Fla.
The prospective ownership group in Jacksonville officially notified the league yesterday that it was quitting the race after failing the night before to come to terms with city officials on a lease and renovation plan for the 46-year-old Gator Bowl.
The city's withdrawal leaves four contenders for the two expansion franchises the league is scheduled to award in October for play in 1995: Baltimore, St. Louis, Charlotte, N.C., and Memphis, Tenn.
The elimination of Jacksonville and the financing troubles that have stalled Memphis' bid appear to make NFL expansion a three-way race for two teams.
"It improves the odds for everyone. It would have been naive to think that all five markets didn't have their advantages," said Max Muhleman, a consultant working on behalf of Charlotte's NFL investors, of the Jacksonville withdrawal.
Memphis will announce plans Tuesday to start a premium-ticket campaign, as well as details of its efforts to resume its NFL bid, said Pepper Rodgers, a spokesman for Memphis' investment group.
The head of Baltimore's bid, Maryland Stadium Authority chairman Herbert J. Belgrad, said: "Whether the number of cities is five or four or three doesn't make any difference to us. We are not looking at percentages, we are looking to be one of two."
Jacksonville, along with Memphis, had been considered a long shot in the race, but its candidacy seemed to be picking up support with investment group changes and expanded stadium renovations.
"Jacksonville was a sleeper," said one NFL source familiar with the expansion process. "There will be owners who had Jacksonville ahead of Charlotte and will be disappointed."
More common, however, was the view of Giants co-owner Bob Tisch: "In my opinion I don't think they would have gotten it anyway."
Jacksonville city council members meeting in a seven-hour session Wednesday refused to endorse a tentative agreement with Touchdown Jacksonville!, the group trying to lure the NFL. The council balked at provisions of the deal that might have left it responsible for cost overruns and asked for modifications.
But J. Wayne Weaver, head of the Jacksonville investment group, announced an hour later that he was dropping the bid, ending the city's 15-year effort to get a team.
It came as a surprise, despite the problems. The city's anemic premium-seat campaign, which had managed to sell only 2,000 of its 10,000 club seats and 18 of its 68 sky boxes in the first two weeks, was to be restarted with a declaration of "war" against Charlotte.