Led by Richardson, expansion's little guys are rising in stature


If there was any significant change in the NFL expansion derby this week, then let it be said that the three smaller cities -- Charlotte, Memphis and Jacksonville -- have tightened the race. They have moved up. Why?

It's based on the quality of the ownership groups representing each of them. Harsh realism dictates that if Baltimore had Jerry Richardson, instead of Charlotte, the competition would be obliterated.

Baltimore, in a manner of speaking, would be as good as in the league. Is Richardson that important? Yes. Without question.

It used to be that when it was sleepy time down South, as the song reminds, you might want to go to Charlotte. Richardson has helped alter that perception. Charlotte would not have been given the consideration it has received in the expansion effort without Richardson.

In fact, Memphis and Jacksonville also impressed the NFL owners with the quality of their leading money men, namely Billy Donovan and J. Wayne Weaver.

The NFL is saying the fact Baltimore has a larger TV market than Charlotte is important, but Charlotte points out it would be taking football to a new area and there would be no overlap in viewing audiences, as exists in the Baltimore-Washington-Philadelphia corridor.

Baltimore, though, remains a strong contender, with public funding for a stadium in place and the promise of $1 million for a visiting team in take-home pay. Jacksonville, though, already claims it could do even better. It's becoming a shoot-out with all guns blazing.

The Baltimore corporate leadership, headed by the likes of Matt DeVito and Chip Mason, has been extraordinary and has given much to the cause. Baltimore has reason to be pleased with the progress it has made and the ticket sale sellout.

Baltimore didn't hurt its chances at the Chicago coming-out party this week, but Charlotte, Memphis and Jacksonville made up considerable ground, especially the latter two cities. In the cases of Memphis and Jacksonville, they trailed dismally when matched against the others in the early going but have rallied a strong charge.

St. Louis, the front-runner most of the way in the expansion competition, has lost some of its momentum. It has regressed but not enough to lose the lead.

Again, the worst scenario, in politics and other contests, is to be installed a favorite. It's difficult to sustain since so much scrutiny is directed to such a spotlight role.

The two Baltimore ownership groups, headed by Leonard "Boogie" Weinglass and Malcolm Glazer, have scored some points with the NFL. It's not that the NFL owners have any bias against Weinglass or the Glazers. They do like them and recognize their attractive personalities.

The difference is they hold the Richardsons, father and son, in the highest of esteem. That's fact, not a guess. The presentation by the Richardsons before the league's expansion and financial committees was obviously well received.

Their football backgrounds as players -- Jerry with the Baltimore Colts, and son Mark a linebacker on a national championship team at Clemson -- give them a special entree. Indeed, if Richardson is awarded a franchise, he'll be the first club owner since George Halas to have actually played in the NFL and then owned a team during its 74-year history.

In the event they get the nod, the reasons the Richardsons are utilizing Clemson's Memorial Stadium as a one-season home, while construction goes on in Charlotte, are attributed to two things: Mark is a Clemson alumnus and the seating capacity is 81,474. To open up there would be a coup for South Carolina.

It was thought that when Maryland Governor William Donald Schaefer showed up to campaign for Baltimore at the NFL meetings, the Richardsons would go beyond that by bringing in two governors, one from North Carolina, the other from South Carolina, since they represent both states in a regional football marketing concept. Obviously, the Richardsons and their public relations whiz kid, Max Muhleman, didn't enter into a "can you top this" kind of reaction.

The soft-spoken Richardsons wear well with associates because a humility that is ingrained and admired. Reiterating, the race has tightened as the horses turn for home. The early trailers in the field have improved their positions.

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