Will scrambling hurt competition? Baltimore NFL bid seen as most stable

THE BALTIMORE SUN

CHICAGO -- If the financial and organizational stability of Baltimore's NFL bid is an advantage in the race for a team, the city got a lot of help from its competitors the past two days.

Virtually every other city making presentations before the league owners' expansion and finance committees was introducing new investors or explaining recent problems or setbacks.

St. Louis unveiled a new investor -- reportedly Pittsburgh-area businessman John E. Connelly -- and answered some pointed questions about how the deal would work with the recent loss of lead investor James Busch Orthwein.

The disruptions in St. Louis have led to considerable speculation that the city -- long considered a favorite -- is falling from contention.

One NFL source, speaking on the condition of anonymity, confirmed that the owners are concerned about St. Louis' prospective ownership group. If the problems are not resolved by the next meeting of the expansion and finance committees, Oct. 13, then that could prove a significant blow to the city's chances, the source said.

Charlotte, N.C., revealed a retooled financing package based on season-ticket fees and a diversion of club-seat revenue that otherwise would go to visiting teams. Lead investor Jerry Richardson also introduced some new investors.

Jacksonville, Fla., also introduced a new investor and explained why its prospective owners dropped out of the race this summer before re-entering. The bidders also raised the possibility of diverting club-seat revenues.

Memphis, Tenn., unveiled a plan for more club seats to be built into the renovated Liberty Bowl to enhance the gate receipts of visiting teams. It also announced a new investor: the estate of Elvis Presley.

But from Baltimore, said Herbert J. Belgrad, coordinator of the city's bid: "They did not hear anything new, and we did not intend for them to hear anything new. Our application has been stable since it was filed in 1991."

Baltimore partisans took this as a sign of stability and security for a league that has had its share of trouble with foundering franchises. NFL officials, however, downplayed the significance of last-minute revisions in the other cities.

"I think what we are looking at is how people cross the finish line, not how they got there," said commissioner Paul Tagliabue.

Team owners on the committees were closed-lipped.

"All of the cities did a great job," said Norman Braman, owner of the Philadelphia Eagles.

"Baltimore was first-class. I think the job done by Herb Belgrad over the years speaks for itself. He projected what Baltimore has become," Braman said.

Houston Oilers owner Bud Adams said: "They [Baltimore] had a very strong presentation, very good. We've got five great cities we're looking at."

Atlanta Falcons owner Rankin Smith said none of the five presentations was either so good or bad that it fundamentally changed the race.

Smith said Charlotte's innovative, season-ticket-fee plan was something that other teams probably will look into in coming years.

Several cities, including Baltimore, boasted about the large gate split they could offer visiting teams. The public funding in place -- for the Baltimore facility alleviates the need to divert revenues ordinarily split with opposing teams, specifically ticket and club-seat receipts.

Baltimore's organizers project that visiting teams would take home $1.03 million after every game during the first season at the new stadium, 1996, about twice the league average.

But the other cities made similar appeals this week, some with last-minute sweeteners. Charlotte's group estimates a visiting team would get about $900,000, despite the diversion of some club-seat revenue. A league source said this is due, in part, to stiff ticket and club-seat prices.

Jacksonville's group estimated their gate split would start at $1.1 million, mainly due to a big number of club seats. Memphis says the addition of club seats could boost the gate to nearly $1 million.

Belgrad said Baltimore is considering adding to its 7,500 club seats and 108 sky boxes. This would increase the payout to visiting teams.

"We have already talked to the architects. There is clearly a market for them," he said.

Leonard "Boogie" Weinglass, one of two prospective owners of a Baltimore team, said several committee members told him privately that the city performed well in its presentation. Some also said they were concerned about St. Louis' ability to put the deal together, he said.

Participants in the St. Louis presentation acknowledged they faced tough questioning, but expressed confidence they would satisfy the league.

St. Louis has been considered a leading contender, due, in part, to its publicly funded stadium and large population base. With a few thousand more residents than Baltimore, St. Louis is the biggest non-NFL city in the nation. Baltimore is the second-biggest.

But Tagliabue cautioned against too great a dependence on demographics.

"I think some of the handicapping that's been done in recent weeks has been quite misleading in terms of the big markets having an advantage," he said. "That's not how we view it. We are trying to find what the hot markets are that will support an NFL franchise."

Asked about the presumption the league would choose a former NFL city and a fresh market -- the "old city, new city" model -- he said it is not a driving principle, but could be a factor.

"I guess there are still people in the league who feel that the way to grow the league is to pursue both tradition and growth," Tagliabue said.

Meanwhile, in the two presentations yesterday:

* Charlotte unveiled a plan to make up for the unsold season-ticket fees it offered this summer. Two locally based banks, NationsBank and Wachovia, have promised to buy up any "seats rights" that remain unsold after the 1996 season.

* Memphis' group said it focused on the lack of competing pro sports in the city, the enthusiasm of fans and the local ownership contained in the group.

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