ROSEMONT, Ill. -- If it's going to achieve its nearly decadelong quest to return to the NFL today, Baltimore will have to overcome strong challenges from a hotshot, Sunbelt upstart or a gritty, Midwestern river city that has stumbled to the finish line.
Many national football prognosticators have ruled this NFL expansion competition too close to call. But Baltimore, along with St. Louis and Charlotte, N.C., appears to be on almost everyone's top three list.
But the 28 team owners meeting today are scheduled to award only two new franchises from among those three cities, Jacksonville, Fla., and Memphis, Tenn., in a process that could continue past today.
"The level playing field is the bottom line, and I know that we've certainly got a good bottom line," Gov. William Donald Schaefer said as he arrived in this Chicago suburb.
Despite continuing questions about its debt and unorthodox financing plan, Charlotte appears to have satisfied many in the league that it can pull off the deal, NFL sources say.
That and its expansive, fast-growing market miles from another NFL team make it a strong contender.
About 300 miles away, in St. Louis, NFL backers yesterday finally found an investment group -- and maybe two. A local developer, L. Stanley Kroenke, edged former lead investor Jerry Clinton out of the way at the last minute.
Mr. Kroenke, a relative of late Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton, has passed the necessary background checks of the NFL and, as head of a group of local executives, presents a seemingly imposing front of financial clout.
But Mr. Clinton's former partner, Francis W. Murray, issued a surprise announcement late yesterday saying he was picking up the reins of the St. Louis NFL partnership and intends to pursue the bid. He said he did not know who his partners would be.
Thus, both the Murray and Kroenke groups apparently will make pitches before the owners.
Some owners say privately that they have been put off by the rocky progress of the city's bid.
Mr. Kroenke is the third man to head a St. Louis NFL effort during the past two months. And the city performed the worst of the five finalists in its premium-seat drive this summer.
But it will be hard to ignore its other attributes: 2.4 million residents, a publicly funded stadium/convention center under construction and a location that lends itself to any divisional realignment.
But that's not to say either city is a lock. Although a slight consensus still favors Charlotte and St. Louis, most observers rate the competition as too close to call.
The committees of team owners who will recommend the winners isn't scheduled to meet until this morning, with the full league ownership scheduled to vote on it this afternoon.
And even league staffers, who were scheduled to meet yesterday, say they probably will put off until today making their final recommendation to the committees.
And after the recommendation is made, there is no guarantee that the 28 owners will follow that lead.
But there are several considerations to keep in mind as the owners begin their voting, tentatively scheduled for about 5:30 p.m. Eastern time today.
Various league officials have hinted over the years that they would like to place one of the teams in a new city and one of the teams in either Baltimore or St. Louis, which previously had teams.
NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue says this is one way to pay tribute to both the heritage of the sport and its need to grow into new markets.
Under that scenario, Baltimore would be pitted head-to-head against St. Louis, a city whose enthusiasm for football is seen as suspect by some. Cardinals owner Bill Bidwill paid an estimated $10 million just five years ago to get out of the town -- the only one ever officially abandoned by the league in a vote of owners.
But Mr. Tagliabue also says he's looking for "hot markets" and stresses that people handicapping the race in favor of the big cities are missing the point.
NFL vice president of operations Roger Goodell says the league views a hot market as one to which people and businesses are moving. Baltimore and Charlotte would seem to fit this bill nicely.
The Baltimore area has become an international model of urban renaissance. And Charlotte last month was depicted on the cover of Fortune magazine as the nation's next hot spot.
But Jacksonville has the greatest growth of the five cities -- nearly 25 percent over the past decade, although it started from smaller base.
The choice of finalists, two in the nation's midsection and three along its East Coast, implies that geography will be an important factor.
All but Baltimore are far from other teams, a pattern that sports traditionally have followed in expanding. This no doubt is Baltimore's greatest disadvantage and the biggest advantage of, say, Memphis.
It's also thought likely that the league would not bunch up the selections in any one region, or even the same time zone. This could pit Charlotte and Baltimore head-to-head.
Then there is the "three-leg stool" analysis often suggested by Atlanta Falcons owner Rankin Smith, a member of the league's expansion committee.
He says they have closely compared the city along three considerations: the quality of ownership, the proposed stadium, and what its market has to offer.
In terms of stadium, three cities are offering new facilities: Baltimore, St. Louis and Charlotte.
But Memphis, with cotton merchant William Dunavant and Federal Express chairman Fred Smith, has the strongest ownership, according to one NFL source.
Shoe magnate J. Wayne Weaver, head of the Jacksonville group, also is respected within the league.
Baltimore's two prospective owners, Florida-based corporate investor Malcolm Glazer and a local group headed by Merry-Go-Round founder Leonard "Boogie" Weinglass, are said to be satisfactory to the league. But questions about the enthusiasm of their candidacy set off alarms in Baltimore the past few weeks.
Gov. Schaefer was so concerned he went to New York and met with Mr. Tagliabue.
"I told him that our two groups were strong, that they have money," Gov. Schaefer said. "It was a very pleasant conversation. I had some things in mind."
Charlotte is generally thought to have the most alluring market, a broad swath of the Southeast almost untouched by pro sports.
St. Louis also is thought to be strong in this regard, because of its size.
But Baltimore, only a few thousand residents smaller, surprised the league with its reaction to the premium seat drive -- selling out millions of dollars of club seats and sky boxes ahead of schedule -- and was the first city to offer a $1 million guarantee to visiting teams.
Mathias J. DeVito, Rouse Co. chairman and a member of the delegation, said: "We have the best package. We should get it.
"I feel at peace. We've done everything well. There's not a stone unturned."
TV, RADIO COVERAGE
Channels 2, 11, 13 and 45 and CNN plan to break into regular programming when the NFL decision is made. WBAL (1090 AM) and WCBM (680 AM) also plan to carry the announcement live.
NFL EXPANSION--THE FINAL COUNTDOWN
What: Today, near Chicago, NFL owners are expected to choose two cities for expansion teams to begin play in 1995.
Who: Finalists are Baltimore; Charlotte, N.C.; Jacksonville, Fla.; Memphis, Tenn.; St. Louis.
When: Two committees of owners meet at 9 a.m. to decide on a two-city recommendation. At 3 p.m., each city makes a presentation to all owners. The committees then present their recommendation, followed by a vote.
How: The two-city package needs 21 of 28 votes to pass.
How much: Expansion fee is $140 million.
You can hear updates on the NFL decision by calling Sundial, The Baltimore Sun's telephone information service, at (410) 783-1800 (268-7736 in Anne Arundel County). Using a touch-tone phone, punch in the four-digit code 6100 after the greeting.