Unwilling to give up on the goal of landing an NFL team -- and intrigued by overtures from owners who've talked of relocating their franchises -- leaders of Baltimore's football bid are asking possible ticket holders to back their efforts just a little while longer.
The city's NFL expansion committee has drafted a letter to all club-seat and sky-box customers, requesting that they leave their deposits in an interest-bearing escrow account until March 31 while talks with interested owners develop.
Initially, Baltimore's NFL committee pledged promptly to return those funds -- $8.5 million from the sale of 7,500 club-seat premiums and rentals of 100 sky boxes -- if the NFL's expansion race concluded without a franchise's being awarded to the city. Customers still have the option of getting their money back 10 days after NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue authorizes those refunds.
But, in a letter due to be mailed today, the expansion committee says it has not closed the door on its efforts to bring a team to Baltimore, and holding the escrow money might be a good investment for prospective ticket buyers.
"Already, we have received a request for stadium and lease information from an existing franchise, reputedly committed to relocation," the letter says. The team isn't identified in the letter, nor is there additional detail about the status of the contact.
But Maryland Stadium Authority chairman Herbert J. Belgrad, who fielded the request, said it came during a phone call Wednesday, a day after NFL owners opted to put a new franchise in Jacksonville, Fla., ending Baltimore's expansion hopes. Mr. Belgrad said the call was a follow-up to a conversation with a representative of the same team at the owners meetings.
The letter to ticket holders is the clearest sign yet that the city's XTC hunt for an NFL franchise may not be over. Earlier this week, Mr. Belgrad said a decision whether to enter into talks with an existing team was on hold until the expansion committee had received orders from its shaken leader, Gov. William Donald Schaefer. The governor came back from the owners meeting furious over the NFL's treatment of Baltimore and undecided whether the city's pursuit of a team was worth the bother.
The letter -- which the governor approved -- is an indication that Mr. Schaefer does not want to foreclose Baltimore's NFL options. It's also an opportunity for him to gauge public sentiment for a plan to continue the search for an NFL team through relocation of an existing franchise, said Page W. Boinest, the governor's press secretary.
"A lot of people know we're going to keep on trying," Mr. Schaefer said on his weekly radio appearance on WBAL. "We're not going to let Tagliabue get off by making a monkey out of us completely. We're still going to stay in there."
Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said yesterday that negotiations will come with conditions.
"We don't want to get involved in a bidding war, we don't want to lure somebody's team out of their city, we don't want to become a bargaining chip for anybody," he said. "But if a team or owner makes the decision that they are going to leave, then we will talk to them about coming to Baltimore."
Mr. Belgrad cautioned that getting a franchise to relocate to Baltimore would be an extremely difficult job, complicated by the governor's refusal to authorize negotiations with any team that has not irrevocably decided to make a move.
"At this point, we don't want to become optimistic," Mr. Belgrad said. "We recognize that we had a very attractive financial package on the table and that there were owners who openly expressed interest in that package. But we are not going to build any hope on the part of fans that another franchise is going to come here. We'll take a cautious, wait-and-see attitude.
"We feel we have been used and abused by the NFL. It will take a lot to dissuade us from that view and for us to begin serious negotiations with any existing franchise."
Mr. Belgrad said the expansion committee settled on a deadline of March 31, because it comes after the next NFL meeting and would give an owner moving to Baltimore time to seek league approval for relocation -- if the owner wants it.
The expansion committee isn't taking a position on that issue, Mr. Belgrad said. "We're merely giving enough time for that to take place, at option of the owner," he said.
Ticket buyers who leave their money in the football account will keep their "priority status" for prime seats at a new Camden Yards football stadium. Those fans paid steep prices for reservations for club seats -- $350 to $8,500 -- and sky boxes, up to $52,500.
The few customers who have contacted the stadium authority so far aren't in a hurry for refunds.
"I don't know of a single call coming into our office where the person was saying, 'I want my money, and I want it now.' The few contacts have been in favor of keeping the money toward attracting an existing team," said Walt Gutowski, the stadium authority's NFL expansion coordinator.