Baltimore's allure: Dollars -- and sense Final expansion pitch Tuesday in Chicago

THE BALTIMORE SUN

As a market, it lacks the sparkling allure of a large, defined region. And it's hardly the sort of "fresh" territory so favored by sports leagues these days: it is or has been the home of major league baseball, football and basketball.

In fact, Baltimore sits squat in the middle of an area so congested with National Football League teams that a fan here can drive to any of four pro football stadiums within four hours.

But organizers of the city's nearly 10-year-old bid to rejoin the NFL think they have put together a deal so irresistable that it will overcome these shortcomings.

And they intend to prove it this week.

The final lap of the NFL expansion race begins on Tuesday and Wednesday when the five contending cities make formal presentations in Chicago to committees of NFL owners overseeing expansion and league finances.

For Baltimore's delegation, the hotel conference room will be a perfect venue to lay out the economic facts that make this the perfect home for football, according to Herbert J. Belgrad, chairman of the Maryland Stadium Authority and coordinator of Baltimore's NFL effort.

"They are not going to be persuaded by rhetoric or glitzy films. They are going to look at the dollars and cents. And in that regard I come out ahead," Mr. Belgrad said. "My numbers can stand up under scrutiny."

Mr. Belgrad, a button-down local attorney who makes no pretense of being a sports fan, will lead the city's presentation. He predicts that the when the final vote is taken Oct. 26-28 the league will protect its financial integrity and go with what he considers Baltimore's rock-solid financial offer.

It's the only city without questions to answer about market, financing or ownership, he said. A Baltimore team would get a state-of-the-art stadium, built with public funds, and offered on terms that will make it one of the most profitable in sports. That will allow it to pay visiting teams $1 million -- twice the league average -- in gate receipts per game.

It may very well be, in Mr. Belgrad's words, "an offer they can't refuse."

But, he adds: "My theory is that there are five finalists and anybody who underestimates any of the finalists is making a fatal error."

Baltimore's delegation makes its presentation on Tuesday from 1:30 to 3:30 p.m. Because it is the only city with two ownership groups vying for the team, Baltimore will get an additional 30 minutes for the investors to make their separate pitches.

The presentation will kick off with a 6-8 minute film, produced for $50,000, that projects the "enthusiasm of the market," according to planners.

Mr. Belgrad says he won't show the film to the public until after the October decision, but people who have seen it describe it as a "mood piece" with shots of the All-Star Game, the Inner Harbor, man-on-the-street interviews and comments from business and political leaders.

Mathias J. DeVito, chairman of Rouse Co., a national real estate developer based in Columbia, will speak on behalf of the local corporate community, stressing the public-private partnerships the league is keen on.

Bruce Hoffman, stadium authority executive director and a father of Camden Yards, will discuss stadium plans.

Belgrad then will deliver the "closing argument." He will note the heritage of sports here and the public financing in place for a new stadium. He will stress the lucrative lease terms that will pay visiting teams $1 million a game and will see the home team become one of the richest in sports within a few years.

An analysis of projected expenses and revenues by The Sun showed the team earning a pre-tax profit of $28 million within a few years.

New evidence

For some competitors, such as Charlotte, N.C., the meetings will be an opportunity to introduce new evidence in their favor. That city recently added some new, and impressive, investors. For other finalists, such as St. Louis, it will be a chance to explain why apparent setbacks -- the city failed to sell out its sky boxes and recently lost its chief investor, James Busch Orthwein -- should not sink its effort.

"We've seen most of these people independently over time so in many cases this will just be a review. But we'll have questions for some," said Rankin Smith of the Atlanta Falcons, a member of the committee of owners overseeing expansion.

One league source, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said St. Louis likely will have to come up with additional investors and has been given extra time to file the financial plan that the other cities submitted weeks ago.

Mr. Smith would only say: "It's something we will have to look at. It doesn't help them any."

But for the most part, the cities' selling jobs this week won't change their fundamental strengths and weaknesses. Conventional wisdom, and some educated guessing, suggests

Charlotte, St. Louis and Baltimore are the top contenders for the two teams, with Jacksonville, Fla., and Memphis, Tenn., trailing. League officials insist there is no such thing as a "lock" in this competition, and that any combination of the five could win.

The owners have offered few hints of what they will be looking at when selecting among the cities. One NFL official familiar with expansion deliberations, however, suggested some parameters: "Don't get too hung up on demographics," said the official, speaking on the condition of anonymity. Small markets often support teams very well.

Neither is local ownership necessarily considered vital to keeping fan support, the official said. The last time it expanded, the league took Seattle but brought in an out-of-town ownership group. That could happen again, the official said.

And the notion that the league wants to put a team in a city it left and the other in a fresh market -- the "old city, new city" theory -- is not official policy, the source said. It is based on an off-hand comment commissioner Paul Tagliabue made several years ago.

The Redskins question

Looking in from the outside, experts see a number of scenarios playing out in the final vote.

"First and foremost I think they are going to look at assuring a successful franchise operation. By having your funding in place, I think you have a leg up," Paul Much, a Chicago-based financial consultant who advises sports teams, said of Baltimore.

If the league was reluctant to locate a team so close to the Washington Redskins and Philadelphia Eagles, Baltimore would not be a finalist, he said.

Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke has been publicly neutral on the question of expansion and Baltimore, but Mr. Smith said Mr. Cooke has let it be known he would prefer the team go elsewhere. But, predicted Mr. Smith, that won't sway the voting. Mr. Cooke has declined to comment and says through a spokesman that he's neutral.

St. Louis will have to find some way to replace Mr. Orthwein's investment, Mr. Much said. But the market is big enough, and far enough from other teams, that the league can't ignore it.

Jacksonville, he predicts, can prove with its publicly renovated stadium and thousands of premium seats that a team would be profitable there. But pulling out and rejoining the NFL race, which the city did this summer, will trouble owners, as will the proximity of other teams in Florida, he said.

Charlotte's finances are too uncertain and Memphis is too small, he said.

"If I was putting money on two locations, it would be Baltimore and St. Louis, that's what my gut tells me," Mr. Much said.

Michael Megna, a Milwaukee-based sports finance consultant with Megna Valuations, said: "St. Louis is a shoe-in. The league will find a way to circumvent the problems. They want a team in St. Louis."

For the second team, he said Jacksonville would be too small, and Memphis' prospective owners haven't instilled great confidence.

He rules out Baltimore because of objections he thinks are likely to be raised by Mr. Cooke, leaving Charlotte as the second city.

Alan Friedman, publisher of Team Marketing Report, a Chicago-based newsletter for sports team executives, concurred with the St. Louis/Charlotte predictions.

"I think the league is trying to grow its base and a new market makes a lot of sense," he said. "They would pick up a lot of fans in St. Louis and in the Carolinas.

"I don't know how much they would gain from returning to Baltimore except by picking up some disenfranchised fans. It doesn't seem to fall into line with what other leagues have done, going into new markets."

Baseball, he noted, just expanded to Denver and Miami -- two cities far from other teams.

Most ominous of all for Baltimore, however, was the prediction of Gary Roberts, vice dean of the law school at Tulane University. He has done extensive work for the NFL, including defending it against antitrust charges brought by investors in Memphis when that city was overlooked in the last expansion, almost 20 years ago.

"It was largely a television-driven process," he said. The league took Tampa Bay and Seattle because they both sat in the middle of large, regional television markets, he said.

From that perspective, St. Louis, Charlotte and Memphis would seem to have the edge, he said. Although small cities, Memphis and Charlotte each could serve as a hub of a network of TV markets -- adding up to a major television market, he said.

Baltimore, however, is already served by Washington, he said. People involved with expansion within the league acknowledge that TV considerations are the biggest weakness in Baltimore's

application.

A political decision

However, Mr. Roberts adds, the decision ultimately will be political.

"So much of it depends upon the politics and who knows who and whether the groups know the right people," he said.

In Jacksonville, football fans are convinced they are back in the NFL race because the league secretly wants to add another team to fast-growing Florida.

In Charlotte, people are so sure they will get a team they have laid out millions of dollars for the rights to buy a season ticket -- for 1995.

Confidence is running so high in St. Louis that the business community yawned when sky boxes went on sale as part of a league-designed market test.

Memphis? Boosters tick off the statistics of sold-out exhibition games like so many Elvis hits.

Baltimore tops that with record-setting Orioles attendance, and, once upon a glorious time, Colts fans so feverish they contested wills for control of bequeathed season tickets.

The five finalists have polished their sales presentations for this week's meetings.

"I think they [presentations] will be very important for the cities," said Rodger Goodell, the NFL's director of club administration and expansion coordinator. "The presentations are their opportunity to come in and discuss why they think the NFL will be successful in their communities and what they can bring to the NFL."

Mr. Goodell and his staff have researched extensively what makes a sports team succeed. The results are expressed in the criteria the league has laid out, described by the Falcons' Mr. Smith as a "three-legged stool": a supportive market, strong ownership and first-rate facilities.

What's the most important factor? "That's like asking what's the most important leg of a three-legged stool," Mr. Smith said.

"Obviously we are looking for a city that has indicated great support for a franchise, either new or an old one, and we're looking at the ownership and the facility," Mr. Smith said.

The league wants a team to make money, because the other teams inevitably become involved when one founders. A few years ago the league came close to having to bail out the New England Patriots, and it does not want to repeat that.

As for Baltimore, Mr. Smith said, "I think you're in pretty good shape. I think most of them are in pretty good shape."

HOW THE OTHER CITIES VIEW THE RACE

Bernie Miklasz, Columnist, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Let me preface this by saying I may not be as objective as I should be because St. Louis is my home, and Baltimore is where I'm from, but they are the two cities I believe will get expansion teams.

These are the two cities that have paid the price and have been willing to get a commitment for a stadium. Others have been giving it those Ross Perot pot shots, but it's all been fake. Charlotte represents a lot of things the NFL wants, a new territory, new cities, and it can draw from different geographical regions. But there are still questions about its financial package, if the Richardson family has enough capital to pay their bills. All the funding for a stadium is not in place.

The owners know they can come in and make money in Baltimore and St. Louis, and that's the most important issue, as opposed to the questions about Charlotte. Once the owners cut through the campaigns and the cheerleading, they will pick St. Louis and Baltimore.

Al Dunning, Sports Editor, Memphis Commercial-Appeal

The smart money is supposed to be on morning-line favorites St. Louis and Charlotte, but I'd feel safer betting that NASA's Mars probe will land in one of the those towns before the NFL does. Locking 28 NFL owners in the same room and allowing each of them to vote in the best interests of his personal wallet is a good way to produce a weird election. What's best for the league may not, in all cases, be what's best for the home team -- and the home team may vote accordingly.

Add to this uncertainty some late glitches in the campaigns of some franchise-chasing cities and the plot thickens. This may not be as pat a deal as it looked back when St. Louis was the arch-favorite and Charlotte was spinning such an intricate web.

Based strictly on cosmic vibes and the amount of fur visible on a wooly-wormer, my guess is still St. Louis and Charlotte. But I rate Baltimore close enough that a swing of just a vote or two could dump one of the front-runners -- especially Charlotte. How would it look for a new NFL team to be homeless and forced to play in Clemson, S.C.?

Memphis has gained, too; NFL owners must have noticed that Memphis has (1) a rock-solid investor group and (2) a stadium ready for immediate occupancy.

As decision day approaches, the biggest mystery of all continues to be this: Why doesn't the NFL vote in favor of almost everybody in the race? Grab two new members now and pick two more to be admitted, say, two years later. Four of the five contending cities could celebrate (sorry, Jacksonville).

Tim McDonald, Columnist, Florida Times Union

I'm picking Baltimore and Jacksonville. I know some people will call me an idiot, but I've been called worse, even today. I think the NFL really wanted St. Louis until the money man dropped out, and now they are without a major backer.

I think Baltimore is definitely in and the second spot will be between Charlotte and Jacksonville because both are new territories. Then Jacksonville will edge out Charlotte, and one of the reasons is that the Jacksonville group is guaranteeing a $1.1 million payout for each NFL team that visits the city.

There was a time when Jacksonville was about to drop out, and Paul Tagliabue and some of the NFL owners bent over backward to keep Jacksonville in the race. I think that tells you something.

Carlton Tudor, Columnist, The Raleigh News & Observer

My general assumption was that St. Louis was pretty much a shoo-in, with Baltimore and Charlotte fighting for the second spot. But if I had to pick two, I would pick Baltimore and Charlotte because Hugh McColl, the CEO at NationsBank, is a big player in both the Baltimore and Charlotte efforts.

NationsBank is the most powerful entity in Texas, with big stakes in Dallas and San Antonio, and I think McColl will be willing to give the NFL owners some type of equity line in exchange for access to the league.

I've also heard a lot of rumors that are enticing, one is that the owners will pick four teams, including one that is not even in the race, that being San Antonio. Remember, NationsBank is huge in San Antonio, and they've already got a stadium and sky boxes. They just need a season-ticket base.

THE EXPANSION CANDIDATES

Baltimore

Stadium: A 70,000-seat, $150 million, football-only stadium to be built adjacent to Camden Yards, paid for with bonds backed by special lotteries and stadium revenue. Features 108 skyboxes and 7,500 club seats. Team also gets rennovated Colts training facility.

Market: Population of 2.43 million ranks it 17th among U.S. cities, a close second among expansion finalists and among cities without teams. Per capita income of $15,776 is the highest of the finalists and population grew a respectable 8.3 percent over the past decade. TV market rank: 22.

Ownership: Only city with more than one ownership group. Malcolm Glazer is a Florida-based corporate investor who made a fortune in real estate and investing in such companies as Harley-Davidson and Formica Corp. Says he can write a check for the team. Rival for the team is a group led by Leonard "Boogie" Weinglass, a pony-tailed retail executive who promises fan-oriented, hip team marketing. Group includes movie-maker Barry Levinson and a black investor, ex-Colt Joe Washington.

Pros: On paper, Baltimore seems to have it all. Its a big city with lots of money offering to build a stadium with public funds. Fan interest has been abundantly demonstrated by enthusiasm for the Colts, Orioles and this summer's baseball All-Star game.

Cons: Problems include weak support for the Colts in their last few years and the proximity of the Eagles and Redskins. If St. Louis wins one team, the league may be reluctant to return to two former NFL cities.

Charlotte:

Stadium: Team owners will build a $160 million, 72,302-seat stadium with 102 sky boxes and 8,314 club seats. Construction to be financed by borrowing and a special assessment charged season ticket holders.

Market: Population of of 1.2 million ranks it 42nd among U.S. cities and a distant third among expansion hopefuls. Growth of 19.6 percent over the last decade was strong. Per capita income of $14,536 is third among expansion cities. TV market rank: 29.

Ownership: Lead investor Jerry Richardson is a former Colt player who parlayed a single hamburger restaurant into a chain that includes Denny's and Hardees. Financial troubles forced him to sell control of the company, which has recently been the subject of accusations of racial bias, but he still runs it. Last week added some heavyweights to partnership: the recently retired president of Coca-Cola and a retail executive who Forbes magazine lists as one of the richest men in the nation.

Pros: Despite its size, Charlotte has effectively crafted an image of a fast-growing, sprawling market hundreds of miles from another team. Popularity of the NBA Hornets and college football demonstrates sports enthusiasm.

Cons: Nagging questions surrounding financing -- the group is the only one without public funding for its stadium -- must be resolved. Pledge to the NAACP to add a black investor still unfilled.

Jacksonville

Stadium: City proposes a $120 million rennovation of the 46-year-old Gator Bowl, tearing down large portions of the structure and rebuilding to NFL specs with 82,000 seats, including 10,000 club seats and 68 sky boxes.

Market: Population of 943,500 ranks it 55th among U.S. cities and last among expansion hopefuls. Its growth, though, tops 25 percent, making it the fastest growing. Per capita income of $13,000 is second-poorest. TV market rank: 54.

Ownership: Group led by J. Wayne Weaver, an out-of-town executive who made a fortune in shoe retailing. Group includes Jeb Bush, son of the ex-president and a likely candidate for governor of Florida.

Pros: Abundance of club seats and reluctant public funding could make this a very wealthy team and lucrative place for visitors to play. May hold some regional appeal among team owners in the Southeastern United States, possibly taking votes from Charlotte.

Cons: Small and located in a state with two other NFL teams, Jacksonville rarely ranks high among analysts handicapping the race. The city dropped out of the running for several weeks this summer, but came back in.

Memphis:

Stadium: City proposes a $50 million renovation of the 28-year-old Liberty Bowl. Facility would have 63,000 seats, including 100 sky boxes and 8,302 club seats. Financed by a combination of tax breaks and state and local assistance.

Market: Population of 1 million ranks it 49th among U.S. cities and fourth among expansion hopefuls. Grew 7.5 percent over the last decade. Per capita income of $13,590 makes this the poorest of the expansion candidates. TV market rank: 42.

Ownership: Group is led by cotton merchant William B. "Billy" Dunavant Jr. and includes a black investor, ex-player and broadcast executive Willie Davis.

Pros: Memphis has been trying to break into the NFL for decades and bills itself as a capital of the sprawling "mid-south" region.

Cons: Rated a long shot by most analysts because of its size. Stadium is old and ownership group openly flirted with dropping out this summer. Ownership group and city council still working on financing plans.

St. Louis:

Stadium: A 70,000-seat, $260 million, domed stadium/convention center already under construction, paid for with bonds backed by state and local government payments. Has 6,550 club seats and 101 sky boxes. Team must build its own training facility and offices as the stadium will be booked for conventions between games.

Market: Population of 2.47 million ranks it 16th among U.S. cities and No. 1 among expansion finalists. Largest city without the NFL but population grew at 2.8 percent over the last decade. Per capita income of $15,693 of $15,693 is second among expansion hopefuls. TV market rank: 18.

Ownership: Group suffered a blow when James Busch Orthwein, a major Anheuser-Busch director, pulled out. Now led by personable beverage distributor and race car hobbiest Jerry Clinton and includes a black investor, Hall of Fame running back Walter Payton.

Pros: It's a big city miles from an NFL team, that could fit into any divisional realignment plan. A publicly funded convention center/stadium is already under construction.

Cons: On the downside, the owners must prove they can fill the financial void left by Orthein and overcome a perception of fan apathy that lingers from the sparsley attended football Cardinals. That image was not diminished by the poor showing in the summer's premium seat campaign.

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