Gov. William Donald Schaefer's negotiated deadline for procuring an NFL team is half over, and, despite some tantalizing expressions of interest, there is still no commitment from a team to move to Baltimore.
Supporters say they have made progress, and that Baltimore's hopes for returning to the league are very much alive. Timing will be the key, however, as lawmakers, who met yesterday to consider the issue in committee, threaten to cut off funding for the effort.
"I don't want to raise optimism prematurely, but clearly there are discussions going on with more than one club and potential ownership group, and I am pleased with where I am," said Herbert J. Belgrad, chairman of the Maryland Stadium Authority.
He declined to name the teams involved, but other sources say the city or private investors on behalf of the city have had direct or indirect communication with three teams, the Los Angeles Rams, New England Patriots and Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
But in no case is a team calling the moving vans, and there are plenty of skeptics who say the odds are against an NFL team here for lots of reasons. Since 1970, three NFL teams have relocated, compared with two major-league baseball teams, six hockey teams and nine basketball franchises. *
"I know the league generally frowns on teams leaving their home markets. It creates instability," said Atlanta Falcons owner Rankin Smith.
But, he notes, the league has not had much luck preventing moves. The Raiders, for example, defied a vote of team owners and moved to Los Angeles in 1982. Owner Al Davis won an antitrust lawsuit against the league for its attempts to block him.
Compounding the problem is Jack Kent Cooke's announced desire to serve both Washington and Baltimore with a team in Laurel, a desire that even Baltimore supporters in the NFL predict will be a problem.
"I think before any team could move to Baltimore, they wouldn't want a team in Laurel," said New York Giants co-owner Robert Tisch, who provided one of two Baltimore votes on the Expansion Committee.
Schaefer has met several times with Cooke, and has invited him to locate his team at Camden Yards, where public funding is in place for a stadium. The team owner thus far has refused, saying he would be better able to serve both cities from a site in the middle, and he is willing to pay the $160 million stadium cost.
Cooke adroitly has worked the state legislature, winning over key supporters, chiefly those from the Washington suburbs and fiscal conservatives opposed to public stadium funding. A bill already has been submitted to strip the football funding for Camden Yards out of the budget and redirect it into other needs.
Schaefer persuaded lawmakers in favor of the Laurel proposal to give him 60 days to get a firm commitment from a team; the reprieve expires in mid-February.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Prince George's, said he believes Baltimore's chances for getting a team are slim and the state shouldn't risk ending up with no team at all. Besides, the state could use the money for other things, such as hiring police to protect baseball fans at Camden Yards, Miller said.
Such an effort, however, would face a formidable political hurdle, because the Maryland constitution bestows on the governor uncommon authority over the budget. Schaefer could veto a bill to strip Camden Yards funding, and both houses of the legislature would have to muster a vote of three-fifths to override.
Legislative battle brewing
Furthermore, Baltimore-area legislators, such as Baltimore Sen. John Pica, have vowed a filibuster to preserve the funding, something that could provoke an ugly confrontation between the state's two most populous and politically powerful regions.
"This is not the right time to call an audible on what we're going to do with the lottery money, because you've got very legitimate possibilities with the Rams and Patriots. It would be premature to yank that money away," said Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg, D-Baltimore.
Cooke pointedly has noted that the NFL constitution grants each team a 75-mile territory, and that relocations require the approval of 75 percent of team owners. But Joseph L. Alioto, the attorney who successfully defended the Raiders in their move to Los Angeles, predicted neither measure would survive a challenge under antitrust laws.
More threatening is the possibility that other team owners simply would stay away if Cooke succeeded in building his stadium 15 miles outside Baltimore. Schaefer, using his budget authority, probably could block funding for the necessary road and utility upgrades, but Cooke has said he would be willing to negotiate who would pay those costs.
Football teams are increasingly looking toward sky-box and luxury-seat revenues -- which are not shared with visiting teams -- for profits. Teams in Laurel and Baltimore inevitably would compete for these fans.
Cooke acknowledged the trouble that would cause, and has not ruled out returning to Virginia with his project if the Laurel effort fails or if Baltimore gets a team.
Schaefer has been circumspect in his public statements about the city's chances. "We're going to play the string out on our 60-day time period to get a team," he said this week.
Braman is beacon of hope
Philadelphia Eagles owner Norman Braman said he's been in touch with executives of two teams who say they're seriously considering a move to Baltimore. He declined to name the teams, but predicted one of them will come here.
"I really believe that," Braman said. He was Baltimore's lone holdout in the expansion vote that awarded a franchise to Jacksonville, Fla., on Nov. 30. He said he has no intention of moving here, even though he wants a new stadium.
Baltimore's chief draw remains its stadium deal. A team moving here would pay about $2 million a year in operating costs for the stadium, and in exchange get use of a publicly funded, $165 million facility loaded with moneymaking sky boxes and club seats.
The facility could pump team revenues past $90 million a year and make the team one of the richest in sports.
"Baltimore has to be a very viable candidate for any team that is thinking about moving, given the stadium economics," said Paul Much, a financial analyst with Houlihan Lokey Howard & Zukin in Chicago.
A local group also has filed a bid for the New England Patriots, a troubled franchise trying to win approval from the state of Massachusetts for a new stadium. The members of the group have been a tightly guarded secret, although H&S; Bakery owner John Paterakis is believed to be involved.
Robert Schulman, an attorney working on behalf of the group, said they have approached four teams about buying all or a part of them. "We're determined to purchase a team, and we're going to do it sooner or later," Schulman said.
Bids aplenty in New England
The Patriots also have received bids from Boston investors, including Jeffery Lurie, a moviemaker who briefly expressed an interest in a Baltimore expansion team, and the Kraft family, which owns Foxboro Stadium, where the Patriots play. Investors intending to move the team to St. Louis also have bid, as has a group led by Maryland-based novelist Tom Clancy that wants to move the team to Hartford, Conn.
Clancy, another one-time Baltimore expansion candidate, is leading a group that reportedly includes actors Tom Selleck and Paul Newman, as well as funding from a group of American Indians who operate a casino in Connecticut.
Tisch predicted the league would fight to retain the Patriots in New England, to protect a major television market (Boston is the nation's sixth-largest). He acknowledged the difficulties of enforcing such an edict, but added: "If I was an owner looking to sell, I wouldn't want to go through the hassle."
Los Angeles Rams owner Georgia Frontiere has said she is interested in exploring a move to Baltimore or St. Louis. The team last week sent a letter to the city of Anaheim saying that it intends to issue formal notice in May to invoke an escape clause in its lease allowing it to leave Anaheim Stadium.
Rams take first step
The notification does not mean the team will move, or that, if it does, the Rams won't just end up down the road at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. But two sources familiar with the team's plans say they are in contact with Baltimore officials and take seriously the potential here, despite a $30 million buyout the team would incur if it left the stadium.
Rams officials have declined to comment since issuing the notice.
The Raiders also have expressed interest in improving their situation at the Coliseum, which is located in South Central Los Angeles.
"Right now, we're focused on Buffalo; we're not thinking about anything else," said Al Locasale, a Raiders spokesman. The team faces the Bills in the AFC playoffs tomorrow.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers owner Hugh Culverhouse Sr. has cancer and has established a board of trustees that would operate and sell the team upon his death, according to reports in Florida. Some local investors have expressed interest, and team officials privately have expressed a desire to keep the team in Tampa Bay.
Malcolm Glazer, who filed an application to own an expansion team in Baltimore, approached the Buccaneers recently, but was told the team wasn't for sale, according to two sources. Bryan Glazer, a son of the corporate investor, said they've had only informal contact with the team's executives at NFL meetings, and that the family isn't in pursuit of a football team.