Backstage juggling of NFL bids gives Baltimore the brawl New effort sacrifices stability for stature

THE BALTIMORE SUN

For the past three years, Baltimore's NFL bid has been a veritable Walton family in the football-franchise hunt: dependable, honest, maybe even dull.

Not any longer.

Gov. William Donald Schaefer's decision to back a new owner in the final weeks of the effort has not only brought new sizzle to the bid but transformed it into something that more closely resembles the dysfunctional Simpson family.

The abrupt change in strategy reflects conclusions, reached during a series of closed-door meetings and a secret pilgrimage to NFL headquarters in New York over the past month, that something urgently needed to be done to save the 10-year effort.

What one participant described as the most difficult few weeks in the city's NFL effort culminated Monday when Mr. Schaefer, swallowing his parochial bias, endorsed Cleveland-based businessman Alfred Lerner as the city's prospective team owner.

"It was very difficult," Mr. Schaefer said. "No one likes to be a bad guy."

It was a bold gamble for Baltimore: Mr. Lerner, a rich businessman and part-owner of the Cleveland Browns, is an NFL insider. But competitors are raising questions of instability in Baltimore, where ugly infighting has flared into the open just days before the Nov. 30 expansion decision.

And it has raised painful questions of loyalty and values in an expensive franchise chase that already was becoming unseemly.

Leonard "Boogie" Weinglass, whose investment group was one of two prospective owners who have been part of the NFL process in Baltimore for more than two years, reacted with bitterness to the endorsement of Mr. Lerner.

"I grew up with more honesty in my rough neighborhoods than I've seen in these high circles," said Mr. Weinglass. "I don't know how some of the people go to sleep with their consciences."

The other prospective owner, Malcolm Glazer, was more reserved, hoping the league would favor the groups that had spent millions of dollars and more than two years supporting Baltimore's application.

Both men have vowed to stick it out, but it's unlikely the league would select someone passed over by the governor.

Signs of trouble

The beginning of the end for them began Sept. 21 in a windowless room in a hotel at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport, where NFL team owners had gathered to hear presentations from the five cities trying to join the league.

Baltimore won plaudits from league officials and owners. But a hoped-for show of public or private support for one or both of the prospective owners never materialized.

Word began to leak that neither man performed well in his presentation. Mr. Glazer, a Florida-based financier clearly uncomfortable in the public eye, was flatfooted and talked too much; Mr. Weinglass, an iconoclastic retail executive with a ponytail, amused some owners with his jocular style and turned off others.

Meanwhile, presentations made on behalf of Jacksonville, Fla., Memphis, Tenn., and Charlotte, N.C., included businessmen of national stature and personal styles more familiar to NFL owners. Memphis' group, for example, included one of the world's largest cotton merchants and the founder of Federal Express Corp. Jacksonville's included a successful corporate chief and a son of former President George Bush.

League officials repeatedly assured Baltimore's organizers that there was nothing to worry about, but the unease steadily worsened over the next few weeks.

Prior to the Sept. 21 meetings, Mr. Glazer and Mr. Weinglass had found some support among team owners at league meetings and in social encounters. And they had passed the league's extensive background checks for character and financial capability.

But their appeal had never really been put to the test before the presentations to the 12-member joint finance/expansion committee, charged with recommending the future homes of the league's 29th and 30th teams.

"What we were hoping was that out of that meeting we would see a groundswell for one or both of our owners," said Herbert J. Belgrad, Maryland Stadium Authority chairman and chief coordinator of the city's bid.

The opposite happened. Questions about their compatibility with the NFL began as whispers, then surfaced in media accounts.

No one suggested they would be bad owners, or that they were unsuitable. But they were never mentioned in the same context as J. Wayne Weaver, the take-charge shoe retailer heading the bid in Jacksonville, or Jerry Richardson, the ex-player and food services executive who weeks later won a team for Charlotte, N.C.

Both of those men made strong impressions on the team owners; Mr. Weaver almost single-handedly seems to be keeping the small city's chances alive.

"No one ever told us that they were not acceptable. No owner would ever say that. What we got was that other cities had stronger ownership candidates," said Mathias J. DeVito, chairman of Columbia-based Rouse Co. and member of the city's expansion committee.

A few days after the meetings, a smear campaign against Mr. Weinglass surfaced. In letters sent to reporters and some NFL officials, allegations were repeated about high-stakes gambling Mr. Weinglass had admitted to years earlier. But league officials, including commissioner Paul Tagliabue, defended Mr. Weinglass in meetings, according to NFL sources. The issue persisted in the minds of some owners, however.

League officials also raised some questions about Mr. Glazer's financing plan, which, contrary to earlier boasts, did not consist of his merely being able to write a check to pay for the franchise.

By themselves, none of the factors would eliminate either man. But reports continued that Baltimore had the best financial package and least appealing prospective ownership.

Backups come forward

Other investors began to come forward, offering to lead the Baltimore effort. H. Furlong Baldwin, chairman of Mercantile Bancshares, who was not officially associated with the effort as a lender or committee member, was a prospect.

He was in contact with his former partner in a Baltimore NFL bid, Robert Tisch, who had dropped his local effort in February 1991 to buy a half-interest in the New York Giants. Mr. Tisch recommended a man who had approached him while his Baltimore deal was active: Jeffrey Lurie, an independent Hollywood movie producer whose family once competed with Mr. Tisch's in operating movie theaters.

Mr. Lurie came to Baltimore on Oct. 8, meeting with Mr. Belgrad and other officials late that night at the Harbor Court hotel. Mr. Lurie said his in-laws lived in Washington, that he intended to move back to the area and that he would accept local investors in the group. The next day, he and Mr. Tisch met with Mr. Schaefer at the State House.

Mr. Schaefer liked what he saw.

A few weeks later, Houston-based energy executive Robert McNair was referred to Mr. Belgrad by the NFL and asked for information on the local financial package. Mr. McNair, whose Cogen Technologies had tried unsuccessfully to build a plant in Baltimore a year ago, had looked into football here a few years ago but never followed up on the visit.

Meanwhile, a group of local investors approached Mr. DeVito about being the lead investor in another group. But Mr. DeVito, who represented the Greater Baltimore Committee on the local steering committee, declined.

At one point, investors even called H&S; Bakery owner John Paterakis and Crown Central Petroleum chairman Henry Rosenberg, prominent local businessmen already affiliated with Mr. Weinglass' effort, to see if they would join a new group. They declined.

Mr. Schaefer had stayed in touch with Mr. Lerner, who had been a major investor and top executive at a series of big Baltimore banks since 1981. Baltimore NFL boosters had tried to recruit him years earlier to lead a football bid here, but he demurred, in part because he was struggling to save MNC Financial, parent of the city's biggest bank, Maryland National Bank, which was in danger of being pulled under by bad real estate loans.

Lerner's banking troubles were resolved last month when NationsBank completed a purchase of MNC. But Mr. Lerner had made it clear that he would consider a local bid only with the governor's backing and would not be subjected to a "beauty contest" with rival bidders.

Staying the course

Despite the offers, and the signs from owners that an official endorsement would help, local NFL backers were loath to change strategy. The ownership group proposed for St. Louis was imploding, with one group falling apart and others emerging and quickly fading. No one wanted to look like St. Louis precisely when it appeared that city was blowing its front-runner status.

"We had felt that our strength was our stability. It would have been a mistake to fall into the trap that others had fallen into and make a change," Mr. Belgrad said.

They included Mr. Weinglass and Mr. Glazer in strategy sessions, and reported to them the inquiries they had received from other investors, including Mr. Lurie and Mr. McNair. Privately, Mr. Weinglass and Mr. Glazer began campaigning for an endorsement that they thought would solve their troubles.

Mr. Schaefer, hearing the cool receptions afforded Mr. Weinglass and Mr. Glazer by the NFL, got more involved. First, Mr. Glazer and his two sons came to the State House on Oct. 13 to meet with the governor. Mr. Weinglass followed on Oct. 15.

While in New York on Oct. 20 to attend the annual Port of Baltimore luncheon with maritime leaders, Mr. Schaefer slipped off for a secret meeting with Mr. Tagliabue. He assured the commissioner of his support for Mr. Weinglass and Mr. Glazer but noted the inquiries from other investors and told the commissioner he wouldn't object to a substitution.

When all 28 NFL owners met again in Chicago on Oct. 26 to award two franchises, they received abbreviated presentations from the cities. And again, the reviews on Mr. Weinglass and Mr. Glazer were lukewarm. Each had passionate fans but also a few critics among the owners.

Mr. Glazer offered to forgo millions of dollars' worth of luxury seat revenues for the first five years of his franchise, paying the money out instead to opposing teams when they played in Baltimore. The gambit, designed to make Baltimore the most lucrative of the five candidate cities for visiting teams, badly backfired.

Owners emerged from the meeting panning the idea, saying they didn't want expansion teams tampering with long-established revenue-sharing traditions or appearing to "buy" their way into the league.

It also opened an unusual fissure among the local expansion committee: Mr. Glazer did not tell the other members of the offer in advance, humiliating Mr. Belgrad.

Mr. Weinglass, too, apparently failed to overcome doubts, despite focusing in his presentation on the thousands of dollars he gives to charities and the blue-chip members of his investment group.

While Mr. Tagliabue stressed the need for diversity to the owners, some began to acknowledge privately that Mr. Weinglass, with his penchant for publicly speaking his mind, might be a loose cannon in the gray-suited NFL.

The owners then threw a curve: After a few hours of debate, they decided to award a franchise to Charlotte and to defer until Nov. 30 awarding the second team. This would give St. Louis time to solidify its situation, and the owners time to consider the options.

Strategy sessions

A visibly dejected Mr. Schaefer and the Baltimore delegation left the hotel that night for a flight that would not arrive in Baltimore until 2 a.m. Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, Mr. Schaefer, Mr. Belgrad, Mr. DeVito and aides broke off into small groups on the private plane.

"The governor felt we needed to take another look at our strategy. We all agreed," Mr. DeVito said.

The city's NFL organizers spent the next week gathering intelligence; some owners agreed to offer advice off the record. General managers, owners and even NFL reporters were canvassed.

"We felt we got the message that our current package didn't do it, and to go back in with the same package didn't seem responsive to the message we received," Mr. Belgrad said.

Although the league office had continually assured Baltimore that its lack of an endorsement or multiple ownership applications was not a problem, NFL owners were grumbling about the disorder. All the other cities had fallen behind a single ownership group, making it easier to envision the new franchise.

"I think the fact that there are two separate groups in Baltimore confuses the issue," Carmen Policy, president of the San Francisco 49ers and a member of the joint expansion/finance committee, said before the Lerner announcement.

The city's organizers heard the message and, at an unusual summit on Nov. 3 in the Greater Baltimore Committee offices, they set in motion last week's announcement. Mr. Schmoke, Mr. Schaefer, Mr. Belgrad, Mr. DeVito and special adviser Ernie Accorsi, a former general manager of two NFL teams, were there.

Over a catered dinner and birthday cake for the governor -- he turned 72 the night before -- they came to several conclusions.

"We looked at everything, and we felt that we should come in behind an owner," Mr. DeVito said. "Because of the feedback we were getting, we felt we ought to back a third owner."

Several possibilities were raised at the summit: Mr. Lurie was seen as a viable option, especially because he was backed by Mr. Tisch, a member of the joint expansion and finance committee. But he had little connection to Baltimore and didn't bring the same contacts and wealth to the process that Mr. Lerner would.

Baltimore's strategists did not want to embrace Mr. McNair because he had no local connections.

Poultry magnate Frank Perdue also was mentioned. Mr. Perdue said he would be willing to help the effort, even serve as a lead investor. But Mr. Perdue balked at the $40 million that he would have had to put up as controlling partner. He later talked to Mr. Weinglass about joining his group.

Mr. Lerner emerged as the clear favorite at the summit because of his substantial wealth and his league contacts. He also proposed to buy the team without any partners, something the NFL has said it favors because it cuts down on squabbling within team ownership (Mr. Glazer also proposes a solo bid).

Merging Mr. Lerner with one of the existing groups was rejected because Mr. Lerner didn't want partners. He had seen Browns controlling partner Art Modell sued three times by a limited partner and did not want to be subjected to the same headache, one source said.

The endorsement

It was decided at the summit that the governor would call Mr. Lerner and offer him an endorsement. The two existing owners would be encouraged to stay in the race, in deference to their effort and to avoid offending NFL owners who felt that ownership selection was their decision, not the community's.

Mr. Schaefer said Mr. Lerner accepted right away.

The endorsement was a significant change in strategy, but Mr. DeVito said it was not a repudiation of the old plan, just a response to changing circumstances.

"The governor had a long-term relationship with Al Lerner, and it was felt that he would give us an edge," Mr. DeVito said. "Not that our two guys were bad."

ALFRED LERNER'S HOLDINGS

MBNA Corp. of Newark, Del., one of the nation's largest credit card issuers. Lerner owns 12 million shares of the company's stock, worth $243 million. The company was formed when Lerner spun it off from MNC Financial to raise cash and save the foundering banking company. MBNA paid Lerner a salary of $1.18 million last year.

NationsBank of Charlotte, N.C., which became Maryland's largest bank with its purchase this year of MNC Financial. Lerner, as chairman of MNC, engineered the sale, which was consummated Oct. 1. His 7.3 million shares of the company were worth $111.6 million at the time of the transaction, but he had the option of converting them into NationsBank stock of equal value.

Progressive Corp. of Mayfield Heights, Ohio, a leading insurer of high-risk automobile drivers. Lerner invested $75 million in the company in 1988, becoming its chairman. He stepped down from that post this year, after conflict-of-interest allegations concerning Progressive's investments in MBNA. He has sold off his holdings in the company over the past year, selling more than 8 million shares for a total of $251.9 million.

Town & Country Management Co. of Baltimore, a $3 million-a-year real estate investment trust Lerner took public last August. The company owns and manages thousands of apartments in the mid-Atlantic region. Lerner is chairman of the company, and, according to documents filed in advance of the public offering, should own about 2.3 million shares of its stock, worth about $48 million. By law, most of the proceeds of the trust's investments have to be distributed annually to the shareholders. The distributions in the last quarter were 17 cents, or about $391,000 for him.

Cleveland Browns. Lerner owns 5 percent of the team. One valuations expert estimates the team is probably worth about $125 million, and a minority share such as Lerner's is probably worth about $5 million. Because the league prohibits owning parts of two teams, Lerner would have to sell this stake if he gets a franchise in Baltimore. He also owns 50 percent of Cleveland Stadium, and, pending a ruling from the league, may have to divest himself of that holding, too.

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