St. Louis close to adding Payton, but lease unclear


The St. Louis group says it is close to adding Hall of Famer Walter Payton to its ownership team, but there are still questions to be answered regarding its rights to the stadium lease there before the NFL awards a second expansion team on Tuesday.

"We are in discussions with Walter. We have not concluded anything with Walter," said E. Stanley Kroenke, prospectite team owner of the group from St. Louis, which is seen as Baltimore's chief competitor in the expansion race.

The league had asked the four competing cities tm finalize their ownerships by Nov. 15, but agreed to allow changes after the franchise award. Thus, any inclusion of Payton would have to wait until next week.

But the St. Louis group did the next best thing yesterday: It held a teleconference with reporters from around the country to say it was close to signing Payton, a legendary player for the Chicago Bears.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported yesterday that Payton had been offered a 2 percent stake in the team for free, and quoted an adviser of Payton's as saying he had agreed to join the partnership.

Payton was a member of the St. Louis NFL Partnership, a group that disbanded when it lost its key investor, Anheuser-Busch heir James Busch Orthwein, on Sept. 9. Payton had been promised a free 10 percent share of that partnership in exchange for his involvement.

"Walter is a unique man and he would make a unique contribution to our group and that would have to be factored in," Kroenke said. "We hope Walter will come on board after St. Louis gets a team."

If Kroenke sounds confident that St. Louis will get the team over Baltimore, Jacksonville, Fla., and Memphis, Tenn., he is.

"We are convinced of one thing: St. Louis is the front-runner," Kroenke said.

But some lease questions remain.

Kroenke said his group is in discussions with Orthwein to obtain the lease to the domed stadium/convention center under construction in St. Louis. A group headed by Orthwein inherited the rights to the stadium when the St. Louis NFL Partnership failed to file an application by Nov. 15.

Orthwein has offered to sell the lease for $1, but another member of the group, former partnership head Jerry Clinton, says he wants to receive something for his efforts over the years.

"I've got six years of my life and several million dollars tied up in this thing. I'm waiting for an offer that recognizes the money that I have put into this thing and the sweat equity I have in it," Clinton told the Post-Dispatch.

He said he turned down an $8 million offer by Kroenke's group last week as being too low.

Meanwhile, some other problems have emerged with the lease. The St. Louis city comptroller has said he does not think the lease is transferable at all, and an old member of the St. Louis NFL Partnership, Fran Murray, said he thinks he still has a share of it.

"The lawyers are discussing that," Murray said yesterday. He has offered to waive his claim to the lease as part of a deal whereby he would come to own the New England Patriots, a franchise Orthwein is trying to sell.

Kroenke dismissed Murray yesterday, saying, "That is not a factor." Orthwein, however, may have concerns related to Murray; in addition to $1, he wants indemnification from lawsuits in exchange for his interest in the lease.

As for the city comptroller's claim, Kroenke said: "It's our understanding that the transfer would not be a problem."

Kroenke said he was confident he would obtain control of the sky-box and club-seat deposits collected by the former partnership, now held in escrow. "Our attorneys are in discussion on that," he said.

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