Saying it would "place St. Louis back in the No. 1 position for next Tuesday," a group of investors offered yesterday to swap an NFL expansion franchise there for James Busch Orthwein's New England Patriots -- an idea the Patriots owner angrily rejected.
The bizarre offer, by frequent NFL suitor Fran Murray, would result in Murray's owning the Patriots and Orthwein's controlling a new team in St. Louis.
However, the offer brought anger, not interest, from Orthwein, who dropped out as St. Louis' lead investor on Sept. 9 to devote more time to finding a buyer for his Patriots and because of a personality conflict with co-investor Jerry Clinton. It came five days before NFL owners are to meet to choose among Baltimore, St. Louis, Charlotte, N.C., Memphis, Tenn., and Jacksonville, Fla., for two expansion franchises.
"It simply doesn't meet my personal goals, and Mr. Murray is well aware of that," said Orthwein, who said he had rejected a similar offer from Murray in August. "I believe the timing and manner in which Mr. Murray has chosen to make this unacceptable offer public is detrimental to the St. Louis application by adding confusion at a critical time."
Clinton appeared to distance himself from Murray's offer, saying in a written statement that Murray was acting on his own.
But Murray, a minority partner and founder of the St. Louis expansion group who at one time owned the Patriots before money problems forced him to turn the team over to Orthwein, said in part it was his fondness for Clinton that brought about the offer.
"I have enormous respect and love for Jerry," said Murray, who said the swap would put St. Louis on top in the expansion race. "Today it was appropriate and he [Clinton] agreed that I could go forward."
NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said the matter was up to Orthwein to accept or reject.
Murray said he explained the offer to NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue, who said if Orthwein was interested he would allow it to be presented to the expansion committee next week, Murray said.
There would be at least three steps for the owners to approve in the Murray scenario. First, they would have to award St. Louis a franchise with Orthwein as its owner. Then the league would have to approve the transfer of the Patriots to Murray. Then a site for the team would be discussed. Murray says he would not retain the Patriots at their current site in Foxboro, Mass.
Under the terms Murray laid out yesterday in his offer and a subsequent conference call with reporters around the country, Murray and his partners would pay the St. Louis franchise fee of $140 million. Orthwein would own 66 percent of the St. Louis team, with the rest held by other investors, including Clinton and ex-Chicago Bear Walter Payton.
Murray, who insisted Orthwein would make millions more than he paid for the Patriots in the deal, would own 100 percent of the Patriots. The team would play in a new stadium in Boston, if one is built, or in Hartford. Murray's investment group previously had offered $133 million for the Patriots with the idea of moving them to Hartford.
The idea was met by a mixture of disbelief and bemusement around the league, but underscored the challenges facing the St. Louis group, a city once considered the most likely to win a franchise.
NFL sources have privately expressed concern about the status of the St. Louis bid, although some insist that the city still could win a team if it resolves the issue before Tuesday.
"They will be judged on a number of issues and I can't tell you if the delay [in finding a chief investor] will be a factor," said an NFL official. "They have a strong proposal."
One prospect the NFL brought to Clinton, who has been seeking investors since Orthwein reduced his role, was Houston-based businessman Robert McNair, who last week also approached Baltimore about owning a team here. Talks with McNair bogged down over financial issues, even though Clinton offered to relinquish his control of the group.
"I think he's still in the picture but he's got competition," said one NFL source yesterday, speaking on the condition of anonymity. Stan Kroenke, a developer from Columbia, Mo., and relative of the late Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton, also is said to be talking with Clinton about controlling the franchise.