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Final lap of expansion race could surprise St. Louis may face financial questions

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The race for an NFL expansion franchise appeared to open up this past week -- possibly to the advantage of Baltimore.

The local effort could benefit at the expense of St. Louis, which with Charlotte had been considered a front-runner.

Representatives of the five finalists made presentations to committees of NFL owners overseeing expansion and finance. Afterward, owners said no city did so well or so poorly to alter the outcome. But privately, a variety of owners and officials involved in expansion said St. Louis faced some tough questioning and left the meetings most shaken.

Conversely, Jacksonville, Fla., which had been rated a long shot, turned in a boffo performance, according to sources, most of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity because of an agreement by owners to limit comments on expansion.

No one can predict with any certainty how the 28 team owners will vote on Oct. 26, when they are scheduled to award the two franchises. But last week's presentations were important. It was the first shot the cities had at the people who will actually pick the winners; previous dealings focused on league staffers.

Baltimore's presentation, highlighted by Gov. William Donald Schaefer, was solid, sources said. However, the consensus is neither of the proposed owners -- Florida-based investor Malcolm Glazer and a group led by retail executive Leonard "Boogie" Weinglass -- advanced his cause in the separate appearances before the committees.

Several owners and officials said they lacked the appeal and national stature of the leaders of the delegations from the other cities.

"Fred Smith everybody knows," said one source, speaking of the Federal Express Co. chairman who led the Memphis delegation. Smith is a minority investor in the Memphis expansion bid led by cotton merchant William B. Dunavant Jr., who is said to also have made a strong impression with a tearful closing argument.

St. Louis lost its major investor, Anheuser-Busch Co. heir James Busch Orthwein, a few weeks ago. He remains a minority investor, but the cut in his investment in the expansion partnership has left new chairman Jerry Clinton scrambling for partners and money.

Attention has focused on John Connelly, a Pittsburgh-based businessman with interests in riverboat casinos, including one proposed for St. Louis. A number of NFL sources say time is running short for St. Louis to stabilize its ownership situation.

"I hear they are struggling and maybe stumbling," said Tony Agnone, a Baltimore-based player agent with connections around the league.

Clinton acknowledged the league has expressed concern about St. Louis' incomplete ownership group and the lack of enthusiasm expressed in the city's failure to sell all the sky boxes and club seats offered in its premium seat campaign. The anemic response seemed to reopen doubts left by the sparse attendance at Cardinals' NFL games before that team left for Phoenix in 1987.

"They did say they were concerned about all these luxury suites being unsold and that it would be better received by the owners if we sold out," Clinton said. "They wonder about the electricity in St. Louis."

Several sources reported a warm reception to Jacksonville's presentation. The city is promising a $120 million renovation of the Gator Bowl.

"I think people were really surprised by how much money was being spent on the stadium," a source said.

Jacksonville also projects being able to pay visiting teams $1.1 million in gate receipts per game during the first season.

Baltimore, with a publicly funded stadium, projects $1.03 million and possibly more in gate receipts if additional club seats are added.

J. Wayne Weaver, the proposed owner of the Jacksonville franchise, is well-liked, sources said. The Connecticut-based Weaver has made a fortune in shoe retailing.

Jacksonville briefly dropped out of the NFL race this summer, but NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue said the league is only concerned with "where they [the cities] are when they cross the finish line."

Charlotte unveiled the details of its financing proposal, which includes $100 million raised from special fees charged season-ticket holders. The concept, new to the NFL, could prove an important revenue source in the future, said Rankin Smith, owner of the Atlanta Falcons.

"It's something all 28 teams may look at someday," he said.

Charlotte failed to raise the full $100 million in a test-marketing of the season tickets this summer, but it brought along guarantees from a pair of Charlotte-based banks -- NationsBank and Wachovia -- that they would buy up any unsold stock.

Included in Charlotte's plan, however, is an intention to divert some ticket revenue that otherwise would go toward a visiting team's share of gate receipts. League rules allow a team to divert some of the revenues from club seats if it is needed for stadium debt, but this generally is done for existing stadiums in financial trouble, not new ones.

Charlotte is asking to do this, something that competitors hope owners will be reluctant to grant. Jacksonville also has discussed doing this, although it would decrease their promised gate receipts. "Team owners consider that their money," said a representative of another city's delegation.

Other notes from the owners meetings:

* In a post-meeting news conference, Tagliabue said the league was especially concerned with stadium revenue.

A new collective bargaining agreement with players includes a salary cap tied to team revenues. But most non-ticket stadium revenue is excluded from the pool used to define the cap, so money from club seats, sky boxes and other sources will become more important to teams.

This would appear to favor the cities offering new stadiums, designed to maximize such revenues: Baltimore, Charlotte and St. Louis. Memphis and Jacksonville plan stadium renovations.

Tagliabue also went out of his way to note the success NFL teams such as the New Orleans Saints, Buffalo Bills and Green Bay Packers have enjoyed in relatively small markets with no competition from other pro sports.

"There are others in the NFL where we have been the only major-league team in town for a number of years and have been very successful," he said. "The NBA has done the same in Salt Lake City, Sacramento and Portland, and some other markets as well.

"So that was part of the thinking that went into the selection of these five finalists, and it's still part of the thinking," Tagliabue added. "That's why I said anyone who is handicapping this on the basis of demographics or market size is handicapping erroneously."

* Charlotte lead investor Jerry Richardson, who heads the company that owns Denny's, said he dealt head-on in the LTC meetings with the allegations of racial bias lodged against the company in a number of recent lawsuits, one of them stemming from an incident in Annapolis.

He said he brought up the matter, explained his thinking, and asked if there were any questions. There weren't, he said.

* Baltimore's introductory film, shown to the owners, was narrated by Jim McKay, an ABC sportscaster who noted that he lived in the Baltimore area, moved away and came back to settle.

"Whether you're an old friend gone for 30 years or a football team gone for 10 years, Baltimore will welcome you back," McKay said.

St. Louis did a similar film, narrated by NBC sportscaster Bob Costas, who got his start at a St. Louis radio station.

The Baltimore delegation left each owner with a full-color booklet of information about the city, its financial package, and sports heritage. A fold-out photo featured the city's skyline, lighted up for the All-Star Game this summer when organizers asked office workers to leave their lights on for the night.

The cover was made by Wilson Sporting Goods Co., maker of NFL footballs, and was constructed of the same "pigskin" material as a football. A "Give Baltimore the Ball" patch was sewn on.

* The issue of gate receipts grew in prominence last week, with all the cities trying to show they can provide visiting teams with $1 million per game. St. Louis, with a publicly funded stadium, projects $1.15 million; Jacksonville projects $1.1 million; Baltimore, $1.03 million.

The two other cities are working to get to that level. Memphis said it was retooling its stadium design to add more club seats and increase its gate to get into the $1 million range. Charlotte, even with its club seat diversion, projects a gate of about $900,000.

* Weinglass said he purposely introduced himself as "Lenny Weinglass" to the committees, but everyone immediately began calling him "Boogie." He felt compelled to explain the genesis of the name, which stems from his childhood dancing prowess.

He told the owners he is still a good dancer, but probably not on a scale of, say, Tom Benson. Benson, chairman of the finance committee and owner of the New Orleans Saints, is known for a trademark dance on the field after victories.

THE FINAL COUNTDOWN

NFL officials say they hope the expansion suspense will end on Oct. 26.

The owners are scheduled to meet Oct. 26-28 in Chicago, and are expected to award expansion teams to two cities at that time. There are five finalists: Baltimore, St. Louis, Charlotte, N.C., Memphis, Tenn., and Jacksonville, Fla.

Roger Goodell, the league's point man on expansion, said he thought the expansion and finance committee probably would meet first and come up with a recommendation.

Then, each city would get about 15 minutes for a final presentation before the full group of owners. Baltimore's prospective team owners, Leonard "Boogie" Weinglass and Malcolm Glazer, would get extra time for their separate pitches.

The NFL owners then would vote. The structure of the balloting has not been settled, but it's likely the owners would vote on a single recommendation by the committees, encompassing two teams.

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