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In NFL's mapped-out plans, Baltimore just didn't fit

THE BALTIMORE SUN

In the end, after the fans had been rallied, millions of dollars spent, and political battles waged over a seven-year struggle, Baltimore's NFL organizers won a single vote of support.

Philadelphia Eagles owner Norman Braman, at a closed-door meeting Tuesday in a suburban Chicago hotel, exhorted his 27 fellow team owners to consider the history of Baltimore, its renaissance, and its contribution to the NFL.

When he sat down and the voting was conducted, a proposal awarding the league's 30th franchise to Jacksonville, Fla., was passed, 26-2. Opposing were Mr. Braman and a team owner favoring St. Louis. The month before, when Charlotte, N.C., got the first expansion franchise, the vote was unanimous.

It was a bitter loss for one of Baltimore's most intense municipal efforts, and the decision has sparked no shortage of recrimination and self-examination in a community that devoted a large part of its heart, soul and money to return to the NFL.

Was the strategy flawed? Did the commissioner have it in for Baltimore? Was there anything that could have been done to change the outcome?

Interviews with team owners, league officials and others involved in the process indicate that Baltimore's effort may have suffered from a few missteps along the way. Backing a single potential franchise owner sooner would have helped. And the bickering in the last month, with its underlying threat of litigation, didn't help, either.

But the fatal factor was there all along: The NFL, with five teams within a five-hour drive of Baltimore, views this market as already served by pro football.

That point was vividly demonstrated at Tuesday's meeting and one last month, where a map of the United States was projected on a screen. Wide circles were drawn around cities with NFL teams, and around the cities seeking one.

Baltimore's circle overlapped the Redskins to the south and Eagles to the north.

"We saw a problem with putting an expansion franchise right there within a very, very concentrated area when there were portions of the country that, according to the demographics we saw and the growth patterns we saw, cried out for the presence of an NFL franchise far more than the Baltimore area," said Carmen Policy, president of the San Francisco 49ers and a member of the joint committee that recommended Charlotte and Jacksonville.

Kansas City Chiefs owner and committee member Lamar Hunt said what picking Baltimore would have meant, "We would be going to an area that already has a high concentration of teams.

"The decision you have to make is whether to broaden the game up to different areas in expansion or concentrate on where the most people are," Mr. Hunt said.

Baltimore hasn't gotten any closer to Washington since March 1992, when it was included on a list of five finalist cities, along with the eventual winners and Memphis, Tenn., and St. Louis. It ** raises another question: Why did the NFL keep Baltimore in the running, letting it spend money and raise the hopes of fans?

Total spending on the effort by potential owners and community organizers probably exceeds $3 million, most of it privately donated.

The cynical view is that Baltimore, with its aggressive financial package, was raising the ante among the other contestants. Charlotte and Jacksonville enhanced their deals in the final months before winning franchises. The 2-year-old offer by Baltimore added up to one of the sweetest deals in sports.

A combination of a publicly financed stadium and a lucrative lease would make a Baltimore franchise one of the most profitable in sports within a few years, and would pay more than $1 million to each team that came here to play.

Commissioner's choice?

Team owners and officials insist the process was a fair and objective consideration of the facts, a simple search for the cities that could add the most to the league. Local organizers, %J including Gov. William Donald Schaefer, say otherwise, that the game was skewed against Baltimore from the kickoff.

"You can't fight the commissioner," said Mr. Schaefer, alleging that NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue opposed Baltimore's application.

In fact, team owners say Mr. Tagliabue did steer the recommendations and eventual vote. The preponderance of demographic data was assembled to guide the new teams into two so-called "virgin" territories of the fast-growing Southeast. The concentration around Baltimore, and the potential infringement on the Redskins -- who, it was noted, may have to consider Maryland sites for their new stadium -- was relayed to the owners.

In fact, late last week, Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke was reported to be considering moving the Redskins to a 78,600-seat stadium on a tract near Laurel Racecourse.

"They said it was one of the factors we should consider," Mr. Hunt said of the NFL congestion in the Northeast.

Chuck Schmidt, CEO of the Detroit Lions, described Mr. Tagliabue as the "orchestra leader" of expansion.

"I don't think there's any doubt he is the conductor on the major issues," Mr. Schmidt said. "That's a heckuva responsibility he has. How would it look if he didn't step up front and be strong about it and express his opinion and direct it?"

But, said Mr. Schmidt and others, they were free to reach their own conclusions.

"It's like losing a close ballgame when you went into it and thought you had a chance to win and part of the loss included a questionable defensive interference call," said Mr. Policy of the 49ers. "You not only lost, you think the officiating was not as good as it could have been. That's probably the way they feel."

"The commissioner stayed out and let the owners decide," said New York Giants co-owner and finance committee member Robert Tisch.

Mr. Tisch and Mr. Braman provided Baltimore's only votes on the 12-person joint committee. Chicago Bears President Michael McCaskey also supported Baltimore in preliminary votes but switched to Jacksonville at the end. (Mr. Tisch spoke again on behalf of Baltimore in the meeting of the 28 owners, but his partner, Giants majority owner Wellington Mara, controls the franchise's vote, and he supported Jacksonville.)

Third-place finish

Baltimore was probably the bronze medalist in the race. After the selection of Charlotte on Oct. 26, the owners took a couple of runs at naming a second team. The votes were splintered, but Baltimore and St. Louis seemed neck and neck, with Jacksonville trailing.

The committees decided to defer naming a second team, leading to charges of favoritism for St. Louis. The Midwestern city was the favorite of owners until its bid began unraveling Sept. 9, when James Busch Orthwein dropped out as majority investor after bickering with another group member, Jerry Clinton.

A new group emerged, but the city, formerly the overwhelming favorite in the race, never recovered.

It was assumed that Baltimore would benefit from St. Louis' fall. Memphis fell from contention when the best it could muster was a $60 million renovation of the aging Liberty Bowl, a "face-lift" in the words of one NFL source. It didn't help when the city's prospective ownership group then sought a discount on the franchise fee in exchange for paying more money up front, the source said.

That left Baltimore slugging it out with Jacksonville by the time last Tuesday's meeting came around. Given its poor showing at the October meeting, Jacksonville had little reason for optimism.

On the surface, it seemed an improbable choice. With fewer than 1 million residents, Jacksonville was the smallest city in the expansion running and will, when the teams take the field in 1995, become second only to Green Bay, Wis., among NFL cities and the Packers play some of their home games in Milwaukee). Jacksonville's TV market is 54th is the country, compared with 18 for St. Louis and 22 for Baltimore.

Mr. Braman said the television networks told the league they didn't care where the teams went. And NFL Properties, the league's merchandising arm, made no recommendation, he said.

Going South

Jacksonville had a number of attributes overlooked by the prognosticators, chiefly history and economics. Since 1980, major league baseball, football, hockey and basketball have added 14 teams through expansion. Ten have gone to the Sunbelt regions of the South and Southwest.

The most popular single state is Florida, which, since 1988, has gained baseball's Marlins in Miami; hockey's Lightning in the Tampa Bay area and Panthers in Miami; basketball's Orlando Magic and Miami Heat; and now the Jacksonville Jaguars.

The reason is demographics. During the 1980s, the South and West accounted for nearly 90 percent of the nation's population growth. The North and Northeast, during that period, lost 3 million people to migration. Florida has gained more residents than any other state in recent years, and North Carolina ranks fifth in population growth.

NFL staffers were aware of these trends and highlighted them in their presentations and analyses.

"As the process evolved, it became clearer and clearer that the Southeast was a terrific area for football, for sports and for the NFL," Mr. Tagliabue said. He said he decided to endorse Jacksonville on Monday, the day before the meeting.

One source involved with expansion in a losing city said, "I think the NFL has been feeling the heat of the NBA for many years. They have gone into new markets and done very well, and I think the NFL wants to get some of that luster."

Strategy session

But even if Baltimore was swimming against the tide of sports trends, it managed to pick up some significant support. Could more have been done?

The city's strategy was unique in a few major respects: The effort was led by civic and business leaders who operated apart from the prospective team owner. In every other city, the effort was driven by the people who would own the franchise.

The idea stemmed from a meeting between Maryland Stadium Authority Chairman Herbert J. Belgrad and Pete Rozelle before Mr. Rozelle's retirement as NFL commissioner in 1989. Mr. Rozelle counseled that ownership was a matter for other team owners to decide and that the city should focus on selling the city.

The result was a stable financial package coupled with an unstable ownership situation. At various times over the past seven years Baltimore-born novelist Tom Clancy, Hall of Fame quarterback Bart Starr, state Democratic Party activist Nathan Landow and Mr. Tisch either filed applications or showed an interest in doing so.

League officials repeatedly assured the city that its ownership would not be important and that the NFL would pick the city it wants and, if necessary, bring in an owner to its liking, Mr. Belgrad said. He now believes that was bad advice.

In the final stretch, there were three potential owners: Florida financier Malcolm Glazer, a group led by Baltimore-born retail executive Leonard "Boogie" Weinglass, and Cleveland businessman Alfred Lerner.

Mr. Lerner was added, with the official endorsement of Mr. Schaefer, after the selection of Charlotte, an event that convinced local organizers that a change was needed to get the city over the top.

It appears the decision had little impact and may have contributed to the chaotic image of the city's ownership application.

"The lack of a fully concentrated ownership group early in the proceeding was very significant," said one team president, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "I think the splintering in Baltimore was very significant. That was a problem in Baltimore. I think the failure of the governor to support either one of the potential groups was significant."

Another club executive, also speaking on the condition of anonymity, said, "They [the NFL] picked owners and not cities."

Ex-player and food services executive Jerry Richardson in Charlotte and shoe retailing magnate J. Wayne Weaver in Jacksonville made powerful impressions on team owners.

In Baltimore, Mr. Glazer failed to overcome qualms owners had of him as a "corporate raider" interested in buying and selling rather than building a sports franchise, sources said. Mr. Weinglass, with his pony tail and flamboyant style, raised concerns among owners that he would be a loose cannon. Both men say their image problems could have been overcome by an endorsement from the state.

The disunity here and in St. Louis also raised concerns about lawsuits. Mr. Weinglass and Mr. Glazer said last week they had made no decision on whether to challenge the stadium authority or league's decision in court.

Local organizers gambled that Mr. Lerner, as a part-owner of the Browns and a close friend of Browns owner Art Modell, would bring along old-guard owners such as Mr. Modell, who respect the NFL tradition in Baltimore. Mr. Modell was a member of the expansion committee.

The gambit failed miserably. Although Mr. Lerner did make a brief appearance before the committee on Tuesday, he did almost no lobbying, according to several members.

His contacts within the league turned out to be few, although he was admired by those who knew him. And it failed to generate any support from the old guard; even Mr. Modell voted for Jacksonville. Mr. Modell and Mr. Lerner declined to comment on the matter.

"I don't think the ownership was the problem in Baltimore," Mr. Braman said. "I just think there was a desire for new areas."

An open process?

Mr. Belgrad rejects the notion of a market superiority in Jacksonville. "It is virgin territory because every other sport is smart enough not to have gone there," he said.

Though the Florida city has enjoyed a 10-year growth rate of 25 percent, compared with Baltimore's 9 percent, the number of people moving into the metro areas is roughly the same because Baltimore started out twice as big as Jacksonville.

"There's nothing that we could have done or should have done that would have made a difference," Mr. Belgrad said. "The final selection came down to the commissioner making up his mind and, like any good lawyer, making his case."

Roger Goodell, NFL vice president of operations, said: "We really tried to keep an open process. Obviously, when you get to a decision someone has to lose. We looked at all the positives that the cities offered us."

There are tantalizing hints that the work will not be wasted. A number of teams have expressed interest in moving to Baltimore, to take advantage of the financial package and new stadium.

"You'll have a team, I predict," said Mr. Braman.

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