In this corner: an aging, industrial river city trying to reclaim its lost football heritage. And the challenger: an aging, industrial river city trying to reclaim its lost football heritage.
If only NFL games were this exciting.
The two cities given the best chance of winning the league's next expansion team -- Baltimore and St. Louis -- are so evenly matched that it's hard to tell them apart. They are virtually the same size, have much the same checkered sports history and each boasts a revitalized waterfront.
St. Louis has Stan Musial and Tennessee Williams. Baltimore has Babe Ruth and H. L. Mencken. Tourists flock to the Gateway Arch, and wonder what the Shot Tower is all about. The National League Cardinals always make a respectable run for the championship, but have come up short in recent years. Ditto the American League Orioles.
"You're looking at two cities that, from a media standpoint, are pretty much neck and neck," said Bob Warrens, corporate media research director for J. Walter Thompson, one of the nation's largest advertising agencies.
Even Places Rated Almanac, the self-appointed arbiter of livability, had a hard time telling them apart. It ranked Baltimore 21 and St. Louis 22.
NFL owners will meet Tuesday near Chicago to try to find a difference. The owners gave one franchise Oct. 26 to Charlotte, N.C., leaving four cities to fight over the second: Baltimore, St. Louis, Jacksonville, Fla., and Memphis, Tenn.
Even the prospective owner in Memphis now says his city, which failed to come up with a new stadium for the team, is not "in the thick of things."
Jacksonville is everyone's favorite long shot, but it's still a small city with an old stadium in a state with two other teams.
That, in the eyes of many, leaves the race a two-way struggle between Baltimore and St. Louis, two aging, industrial river cities . . . well, you know.
Too close to call?
St. Louis was the odds-on favorite of the two until a new prospective owner, Alfred Lerner, emerged in Baltimore, shaking the prognosticators. Most still give St. Louis an edge, but at least the race may be a little closer that it would otherwise be.
"I still hear, 'St. Louis, St. Louis, St. Louis, provided they have their act together,' " said Robert Wussler, former head of CBS and CBS Sports who is now a media consultant with contacts within the league.
St. Louis has been considered a front-runner since the expansion race began. And the league's presumed preference for the Midwestern city was reinforced last month when the NFL defered awarding the second team.
St. Louis was the most obvious beneficiary of the delay: It had assembled a new ownership group only the day before, and the league hadn't had time to perform the necessary background checks.
"We didn't think it would be fair" to compare the cities with one in such disorder, said Robert Tisch, co-owner of the New York Giants and a member of the joint expansion and finance committee overseeing the process.
The ensuing month has seen St. Louis' group undergo a few minor changes, but the paperwork has been filed and matters appear to be settled.
"All five cities had support, they really did," said Kansas City Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt, another member of the finance and expansion joint committee. "Obviously they are not all the same. Some have better TV packages; some have better owners. They are all different."
The two bids
To E. Stanley Kroenke, head of St. Louis' new investment group, the appeal of his city boils down to several factors: the largest TV market without a team, a stadium under construction and a central-time zone location that can be easily transplanted into almost any conference realignment configuration.
"Other cities are talking about building a stadium; we are already doing it. . . . St. Louis is the best market for the NFL," said Mr. Kroenke, a Columbia, Mo.-based developer.
But NFL sources say the league has some concerns with St. Louis, including questions about fan support in a city that never really rallied around the NFL Cardinals when they were in town. The team moved to Phoenix in 1987.
St. Louis, say the critics, is a baseball town.
Compounding those doubts was the failure of the city to sell all its sky boxes and club seats during last summer's test marketing, and the difficulty it had getting an ownership group together.
Mr. Kroenke is the fourth person to claim the lead of the city's franchise ownership group in the past two months, and he emerged only after an embarrassing search for a local investor.
As has been the case throughout expansion, Baltimore is seen as a beneficiary of St. Louis' troubles. It is the next biggest TV market without an NFL team, and is an "old market" for owners who have expressed interest in returning a team to a market the league had abandoned.
"I do think we were put on the map sports-wise by the Colts, and they [St. Louis] were put on the map sports-wise by one of the great baseball franchises," said Ernie Accorsi, a former general manager of the Baltimore Colts and Cleveland Browns who is working on behalf of Baltimore's expansion bid.
Baltimore clearly has a lot to recommend it in the race: The public funding is in place for a new stadium, the market is large and the football enthusiasm is well-documented. The Colts began the sell-out tradition in football and were among the most successful franchises in the league.
Furthermore, Baltimore is offering a few things that St. Louis is not. Baltimore's stadium will be football-only, not a domed convention centerwith additional seating, and a team here will have access to a renovated Colts training facility and offices. St. Louis' team will have to build a training facility.
Pros and cons
Baltimore's new prospective owner also is viewed as an insider with appeal to the league, though many owners say they don't know him. Mr. Lerner's bid calls for no partners and no financing, according to sources.
That's an appealing combination for a league increasingly wary of debt and intra-team squabbling.
Mr. Kroenke, on the other hand, has left many NFL owners cool. A shy and reserved man, he has acknowledged delivering a weak presentation to the owners last month. His hastily arranged group contains a number of partners, also.
But St. Louis' biggest asset may be Baltimore's biggest weakness: geography. Baltimore is wedged between franchises in Washington and Philadelphia, and St. Louis is miles from the nearest team.
And in recent years, professional sports have shown a great preference for expanding into large, regional markets where outlying areas can be tapped for growth.
Baseball, for example, went to Denver and Miami in its recent expansions -- establishing its only teams in Florida and the Rocky Mountain region.
The NFL, in 1974, selected Tampa Bay and Seattle, giving it access to a growing Gulf Coast region and its first team in the Pacific Northwest.
And last month several owners commented on the appeal of Charlotte's big market.
Baltimore's metro area has a population of 2.43 million; St. Louis has 2.47 million. But the larger, economically connected region, something map maker Rand McNally calls the "major trading area," is 7.3 million around Baltimore and 4.7 million around St. Louis.
Baltimore's trading area includes Washington and the Redskins. Sources involved in the expansion process say the Redskins have increasingly expressed concern within the league about a new team so close.
Charlotte's trading area, which takes in several cities in both North and South Carolina, has 9.5 million people.
But, as Mr. Accorsi points out, the Baltimore Colts and Redskins managed sellouts on a routine basis, and Baltimore's sky boxes and club seats were sold almost exclusively to buyers in the Baltimore market -- demonstrating the cultural and economic distinctions between the markets.
St. Louis may have a couple of other assets as well: The locally based mega-brewer Anheuser-Busch has worked behind the scenes to encourage a franchise there, according to sources. The brewer is the largest NFL advertiser.
And New England Patriots owner James Busch Orthwein is from St. Louis and has publicly and privately encouraged an expansion team there.
He is trying to sell the Patriots, but has done little to dampen speculation that he would move the team to his hometown if the expansion franchise went elsewhere.
Mr. Orthwein headed the St. Louis ownership group until Sept. 9, when he dropped out in a spat with then-partner Jerry Clinton, setting off the scramble that led to Mr. Kroenke's emergence. Mr. Orthwein also controls the lease on the downtown stadium, something that would make a Patriots move there all the easier. He has offered to sell the lease for $1 to Mr. Kroenke if he gets the team.
The TV factor
Television will also be a factor in the race, though league officials insist it will be a small one. None of the proposed markets is big enough to have a dramatic impact on NFL ratings.
But the league is negotiating new television contracts, and the networks have suggested they will not pay as much as in the past.
"If you were a television network, I don't think it would make any difference. It's really apples and oranges between St. Louis and Baltimore," said Roger L. Werner Jr., a former president of ESPN and ABC executive who runs Prime Sports Ventures, a California-based television and sports business.
"If it was St. Louis vs. Memphis or Jacksonville, that might be a factor. The larger the market, the larger the TV audience, and if you're a television network you're looking for gross numbers," Mr. Werner said.
Baltimore has 973,000 households with televisions, and St. Louis has 1.1 million.
Both cities represent slightly more than 1 percent of the television households in the nation.
Mr. Warrens, the J. Walter Thompson researcher, said a client looking to sell a product to a sports-viewing audience would find little difference between the cities. The number of men in the lucrative 18-to-30 age group is roughly the same; the percentage of men in the population is 48 percent in both cities.
Both markets have strong baseball television ratings and attendance at sporting events, traditional measures of a market's "hotness."
Furthermore, said Mr. Warrens, "Baltimore is not showing an affinity for the Redskins."
Baltimore's NFL application said the Colts received a 26 rating during their last season here (ratings measure the percentage of television households watching a program). The Redskins, by contrast, draw only about half that.
And, when the heavily watched Dallas Cowboys-Redskins games are excluded, Redskins ratings in Baltimore actually trail overall football viewership here.
"The case for St. Louis is that it would have a unique access to a market without any other teams competing," Mr. Warrens said.
So an advertiser airing a commercial on an NFL game would see a gap in the Midwest around St. Louis, but would assume many potential consumers in Baltimore were being reached via Redskins or Philadelphia games, Mr. Warrens said.
Mr. Wussler, the former CBS head, predicts that television will play only a small role in the expansion decision, largely because of two related factors: realignment and NBC's threats to drop the NFL.
The two expansion franchises will have to be put into one of the NFL's two conferences, possibly as part of a process that will see existing teams redistributed among the conferences.
The American Football Conference, whose games are broadcast NBC, seems to need a big market the most.
It has teams in New York and Los Angeles, the two biggest markets, and No. 6 Boston. Its next largest market is No. 10 Houston.
But the National Football Conference, broadcast by CBS, includes New York, Los Angeles, No. 3 Chicago, No. 4 Philadelphia, No. 5 San Francisco, No. 7 Washington, No. 8 Dallas and No. 9 Detroit.
Mr. Wussler said he thinks NBC wants a big market in the mid-Atlantic, because it currently has nothing between New York and Miami.
"NBC and the AFC need some strong 1 p.m. teams," he said.
This could also be accomplished by bumping an existing team, such as Philadelphia, into the AFC, he said. He said the Eagles' ownership may go along for this in exchange for the league putting a team in Baltimore, where a regional rivalry would boost attendance for both franchises.
However, if giving a team to Baltimore means losing the Patriots in Boston, then the AFC and NBC would still be light on East Coast teams, he said.
SIDE BY SIDE
Population:--2.47 million metro area, 4.7 mllion in major trading area
TV market rank: 18
Population growth over last 10 years: 2.8 percent
Per capital income: $15,693
Revitalized waterfront: Laclede's Landing
Trendy Rouse project: Union Station
Oddest tourist attraction: Gateway Arch
Date incorporated: 1808
Attendance, last NFL home game: 29,623
Average home attendance, last 10 years of NFL: 41,169
Local notables: Stan Musial, Dan Dierdorf, Tennessee Williams
Local brews: National Bohemian
Major corporate headquarters: Anheuser-Busch, Monsanto, McDonnell Douglas
Major pro sports: NL Cardinals, NHL Blues
Hawks (NBA), St. Louis Eagles (NHL)
Places Rated Almanac rank of the best place to live: 22
POPULATION--2.43 million metro area, 7.3 million in major trade area (includes DC)
TV market rank: 22
Population growth over last 10 years: 8.3 percent
Per capital income: $15,776
Revitalized waterfront: Inner Harbor
Trendy Rouse project: the Gallery at Harbor Place
Oddest tourist attraction: Shot Tower
Date incorporated: 1745
Attendance, last NFL home game: 27,934
Average home attendance, last 10 years of NFL: 44,734
Local notables: Babe Ruth, Jim McKay, H.L. Mencken
Local brews: National Bohemian
Major corporate headquarters: McCormick & Co., Black & Decker, USF&G;
Major pro sports: AL Orioles, Preakness Stakes
Defunct and departed major league sports teams: Baltimore Colts (NFL), Baltimore Stars (USFL), Baltimore Bullets (NBA).
Places Rated Almanac rank of the best place to live: 21