IRVING, Texas -- With less than two weeks to go before they award a pair of expansion franchises, NFL team owners have gotten down to the details that will determine who wins and who loses.
Does a former street scrapper with a ponytail have the right stuff to be a team owner? Is a $50 million face lift of the Liberty Bowl sufficient for NFL standards? And how much debt is too much for groups that are laying out hundreds of millions to join one of the world's most successful leagues?
Committees of team owners looking into expansion met on Wednesday in this Dallas suburb and heard detailed reports on the five finalists contending for two franchises that will be awarded Oct. 26: Baltimore, St. Louis, Charlotte, N.C.; Memphis, Tenn.; and Jacksonville, Fla.
The 11 committee members, including NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue, heard about four hours of reports based on material compiled by Citibank, hired to perform financial analyses of owners and proposals, and Warren Welsh, the league's director of security, who supervised character checks of the prospective owners.
No city representatives were present at the meetings.
Questions arose on all of the cities, any of which could tip the scales, but none that would eliminate any finalist, participants said. "It was a very positive meeting," said Philadelphia Eagles owner Norman Braman.
Atlanta Falcons owner Rankin Smith said that the presentations were thorough and detailed and that he was comfortable with everyone still in the running.
Privately, a number of people participating in the closed-door meeting acknowledged some applications resulted in more discussion than others.
In Baltimore, for example, prospective owner Leonard "Boogie" Weinglass received the longest character report of any of the applicants.
Weinglass, who was born into a Baltimore family of modest means and built a nearly $1 billion-a-year retail empire, has been described by childhood acquaintances as a scrapper and hustler in his early days.
He began his business in the 1960s with a shop in Atlanta that sold used blue jeans and marijuana paraphernalia.
He has acknowledged some high-stakes betting but says he gave it up a decade ago when he settled down with a family and successful business, the Joppa-based clothing retailer Merry-Go-Round Enterprises. He is now active in a number of charities and communities.
No Weinglass surprises
Sources in the meetings said Weinglass, 51 but still sporting a trademark ponytail, has been upfront about his past, and nothing was revealed in the presentations that hasn't already been the subject of media accounts.
But, they caution, individual owners, some of whom have received anonymous mailings critical of Weinglass, are bound to react differently to such material.
"Frankly, there's always been some concern about Boogie, but I don't think it's going to be a problem," said one source.
Though some have questioned Weinglass' past, several owners have acknowledged the role a team owner closely connected with a community, such as Weinglass, can play in a franchise's financial success.
Florida-based financier Malcolm Glazer also is seeking a team for Baltimore, making it the only city with two ownership groups. Glazer, also a man of humble beginnings who achieved fabulous business success, is the only prospective owner who is not part of an investment group.
Team owners raised some questions Wednesday about the debt contained in Glazer's application. Contrary to public suggestions, the financier has not officially proposed paying for the team "with a check," but will finance it, as the other groups plan.
"We've got some questions about the equity, but I think they are just questions that can be answered," one meeting participant said.
Bryan Glazer, who is assisting his father's bid for a team, said the NFL seemed more comfortable with their financing the team. But, if need be, his father is willing to pay cash, he said. Some degree of borrowing enhances the tax benefits of the deal.
Asked about Weinglass and Glazer as potential owners, Falcons owner Smith said, "We feel pretty comfortable with them."
Debt is an even bigger issue in Charlotte, N.C., where a group led by ex-Colt and food-service executive Jerry Richardson plans to finance a stadium and team.
After going back and forth, the league persuaded the group this week to reduce from 15 to five years the amount of time it proposes to divert certain visitors' gate receipts.
The Charlotte group has asked for a temporary exemption from a requirement that all money from club-seat fees be shared along with other seat revenue with visiting teams.
Though the owners prefer no diversion of this money, they may be willing to accept it if Charlotte can demonstrate that, after five years, visiting teams would get gate splits competitive with the other cities, a source said.
The controversy concerning allegations of racial bias at Denny's restaurants owned by Richardson's company did not come up Wednesday. Patrons of several Denny's, including one in Annapolis, have filed suits alleging racism.
Investors in Memphis have been warned that their stadium plans are a weakness in their application, according to one meeting participant. The city plans a $50 million renovation of the Liberty Bowl, something the source termed a "face lift" that may not compete with new stadiums planned for competing cities.
Jacksonville has proposed a $120 million upgrade of the Gator Bowl, something team owners were initially leery of but now seem comfortable with, the source said.
Baltimore and St. Louis plan new, publicly funded stadiums, and Baltimore even has discussed adding more club seats than initially planned to enhance its profitability.
Continuing ownership problems in St. Louis received attention at the meeting, and participants said they are growing concerned with the short time remaining for Jerry Clinton to get his investors on board and
through background checks.
At one point, an owner said: "If St. Louis doesn't get its ownership together, the list goes to four," according to a participant.
Clinton has approached a number of prospective investors, including some who would displace him as majority partner.
Markets, not owners
But league officials hinted that the selection of markets may supersede concerns about individual owners.
"We've always maintained that we could award the franchise to any ownership group that we wish," said Roger Goodell, the league's vice president of operations.
He said the committees will make recommendations on ownership and cities at the Oct. 26 meeting in Chicago, but he expects a vote on the cities first, then the ownership.
Procedurally, there is no decision on whether the franchises will be awarded through a secret ballot, as was done the last time the league expanded, or by open voting, as the commissioner is said to favor.
And, although the committee members tentatively decided Wednesday to issue recommendations in the form of a single, two-city resolution, league officials said that can change. Such a resolution would afford the smoothest voting, and emphasize the role of the committees -- rather than politics -- in the decision-making, supporters said.
But at least one committee member, Kansas City Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt, favors separate votes on the individual cities. "We don't want anybody to think they didn't get consideration," he said.
Although a two-city recommendation may appear to work to the disadvantage of Baltimore, assuming the league wants to avoid giving both teams to former NFL cities or to East Coast sites, Maryland Stadium Authority chairman Herbert J. Belgrad said he's not concerned.
"I think it benefits Baltimore," said Belgrad, who is coordinating the city's bid.
He said it shows the emphasis that will be placed on the committee's investigations rather than politicking among owners. Baltimore's package stands up best with people who have studied it, he said.
Glazer agreed, saying: "I think Baltimore by itself or together is the city with the strongest application. The NFL will take the best two cities."
ON THE BANDWAGON
Sports Illustrated now rates Baltimore the front-runner for an NFL expansion team. In its current issue, SI writes of the city's bid:
"Pluses: Former home of the Colts is a sentimental favorite. Has two finance groups bidding, the richer headed by Florida billionaire Malcolm Glazer, who by himself can write a check to cover the cost of an NFL franchise. A state-funded, 70,000-seat stadium is waiting to be built next door to Camden Yards. Minus: With the Washington Redskins next door, how will they draw?"
ON THE COMMITTEES
Members of the NFL's expansion and finance committees, which will recommend two cities for new franchises:
Norman Braman, Philadelphia Eagles owner; Hugh Culverhouse Sr., Tampa Bay Buccaneers owner; Ed DeBartolo Jr., San Francisco 49ers owner; Art Modell, Cleveland Browns owner; Alex Spanos, San Diego Chargers owner; Rankin Smith, Atlanta Falcons owner; Paul Tagliabue, NFL commissioner (non-voting panel head)
Bud Adams, Houston Oilers owner; Tom Benson, New Orleans Saints owner; Ken Hoffman, Seattle Seahawks minority owner; Lamar Hunt, Kansas City Chiefs owner; Mike McCaskey, Chicago Bears president and CEO; Carmen Policy, San Francisco 49ers president; Robert Tisch, New York Giants co-owner