Will Rams' short list be long on frustration?

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Here we go again.

For the fifth time in the past decade -- and the third time in the past year -- Baltimore finds itself a finalist for an NFL franchise.

And even if the city is not the favorite to get the Los Angeles Rams, it is among a very short list of finalists.

But, as always, there are complications.

What about the Washington Redskins? What if the Los Angeles Raiders leave, too? Does the hometown offer by Southern California fans measure up? Will Rams owner Georgia Frontiere eventually agree to give up controlling interest?

It's enough to worry even Gov. William Donald Schaefer, the eternal Baltimore booster. Recently the governor said he sensed league pressure to take the team to St. Louis -- something the league and Rams deny.

Meanwhile, fans in Baltimore seem to have grown weary of the chase.

"After a while, you get sick and tired of reading the same stuff," said former Colt and Hall of Famer Art Donovan. "When it happens, I'll go down and buy some tickets. In the meantime, life goes on."

Rams officials have said they will make a decision in the next month or so, promising an end to this round of wondering.

"I think things are starting to move now," said Rams spokeswoman Heidi Sinclair.

With Hartford, Conn., apparently out of the running, there are three finalists: Baltimore, St. Louis and Anaheim, Calif., the team's current home.

The team won't reveal its preference, but several sources who have spoken with Rams officials say that while Baltimore -- which appeared to hold a slight edge a few months ago -- remains in the running, St. Louis has advanced significantly in recent weeks.

But the Midwestern city, everyone's favorite in last year's NFL expansion, has lost these races before.

On its face, Anaheim's offer falls far short of the deals advanced in Baltimore and St. Louis, where new stadiums are available for little or no rent. But there are advantages to staying home, including saving $30 million in bond repayments that would be payable to Anaheim and any relocation fee the NFL may charge.

"We have never felt in Orange County that it was necessary to match dollar for dollar the wildest offer to the Rams," said sports agent Leigh Steinberg, leader of the Anaheim group. "The team has been here for 50 years, and for many of those years has been loyally supported."

The team's response, however, has been cool.

Baltimore and St. Louis have in place the public stadium funding that can make the team one of the most profitable in sports. Almost identical in size, they represent the nation's two largest markets without NFL teams.

St. Louis' big drawing card is a stadium that will be ready for next season. The domed structure, built to double as a convention center, offers all the modern amenities: sky boxes, premium seats carrying annual fees, state-of-the-art concessions and fan comforts.

St. Louis still is preparing its offer, which is expected to be delivered next week, but it is expected to include the use of the stadium for $25,000 a game, or $250,000 a season. That rent is insufficient to cover the cost of games, which will have to be made up by convention business. Because of its dual purpose, the stadium will be available to the team only on game days, and it comes with no team-controlled parking, offices or practice facility.

The city figures it will have to raise another $70 million to build a practice facility and offices and settle legal issues related to the stadium lease and move from Anaheim.

Among the ideas being explored: selling the naming rights to the stadium and requiring season-ticket holders to buy a special seat license, similar to the plan Charlotte, N.C., is using to finance its entire stadium, said St. Louis County Executive George R. Westfall.

St. Louis has hired seat-license guru Max Muhleman, the consultant who helped put Charlotte over the top in the expansion race last year.

Investors, led by Wal-Mart heir E. Stanley Kroenke, are offering to purchase a minority position in the team, but eventually want to have the opportunity to acquire control of the team -- something current owner Frontiere is resisting. Baltimore's potential investor, Orioles owner Peter Angelos, also wants eventual control of the team.

Murray part of equation

A potential cloud on the St. Louis horizon rose last week when Fran Murray, a former investor in St. Louis' expansion effort and former minority owner of the New England Patriots, said he wanted his expansion expenses paid for and maintains he controls a portion of the lease.

St. Louis organizers agreed to pay Murray's erstwhile partner, Jerry Clinton, up to $8 million for his share of the stadium lease, and thought they had settled a long-running problem.

The St. Louis group responded promptly with a pre-emptive lawsuit, filed Sept. 22, that asserts Murray has no share in the lease and asks for compensation for the damage Murray is doing the city's effort to land the Rams. Meanwhile, the group has offered to protect the Rams from the costs of any litigation in the matter.

Rams executive vice president John Shaw is concerned with St. Louis' lukewarm support for football, according to several sources who have spoken to Shaw. Shaw declined to comment.

In their last 10 seasons in St. Louis, the NFL Cardinals, who moved to Phoenix in 1987, drew an average of about 41,000 fans, fully a third less than the NFL's average at the time of 58,850. And during last summer's test-marketing of sky boxes and premium seats, St. Louis was the only expansion candidate that failed to muster a sellout.

Issues for Baltimore

Meanwhile, Angelos continues to express confidence about his efforts. He said he plans to meet again with Shaw.

Angelos acknowledged the Rams are concerned about possible litigation from Washington Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke, who has said the Baltimore-Washington region is not big enough for two teams.

Legal experts question whether Cooke can block a move. The league dropped territorial rights from its constitution in the wake of an antitrust lawsuit won by the Raiders.

However, a suit would be a nuisance. Moreover, if Cooke follows through on plans to build a stadium in Laurel, 15 miles from Baltimore, it could put the two teams into competition for sky box and premium seat customers.

Rams officials took note on Wednesday when the Redskins asked for and received approval from the other owners to move to Laurel, a symbolic gesture possibly designed to eliminate doubts about the team's intentions. The Rams and Raiders were among the teams abstaining or opposing the resolution.

Angelos, noting that the Redskins and Colts managed sellouts when the latter played in Baltimore, said the two teams would easily generate their own followings. Civic leaders made a point of selling virtually all the sky boxes and premium seats in last summer's campaign to Baltimore-area customers, to avoiding poaching on Redskins territory.

Washington mayoral candidate Marion Barry has had conversations with Cooke about remaining in the capital, but neither man will discuss the talks.

Meanwhile, a hearing officer is expected to rule Oct. 13 on Cooke's application for zoning variances related to the Laurel project; an unfavorable decision could make the Washington option more appealing.

Spreading the wealth?

The Rams asked NFL officials whether a move to St. Louis would be more likely to win league approval than one to Baltimore, but the league declined to express a preference, said Sinclair, the Rams' spokeswoman.

"The league has not weighed in at all," Sinclair said.

However, one team owner, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said there are strong arguments for spreading teams around the country rather than bunching them up.

From that perspective, a team in St. Louis, 250 miles from the nearest NFL franchise, would be preferable to another one on the congested Eastern Seaboard, the owner said.

Angelos said the financial advantages of Baltimore's bid outweigh competing offers.

Lottery-backed bonds are in place to build a football-only stadium and renovate the Colts' old training center in Owings Mills. The team would get all the revenues from parking, concessions, tickets and stadium advertising and would pay only for game-day expenses, about $3 million a year.

And, unlike St. Louis, the team would have use of the stadium year-round and receive revenues from concerts, exhibitions and other lucrative nonfootball events held at the stadium.

The stadium, to be built adjacent to Camden Yards, would be part of an integrated urban plan, served by mass transit and available to the team year-round for practices. The team could set up offices in the renovated warehouse overlooking Oriole Park's right field, the same structure that houses the Orioles' offices.

Angelos proposes to temporarily house the team at a modified Oriole Park until the new stadium can be built, and said the revenue difference should not be so great as to give St. Louis a major advantage.

And Baltimore's football passion is well-documented: the Colts began the NFL's tradition of sellouts here, and the Canadian Football League franchise here is the most successful in the league in its inaugural year.

"I'm an eternal optimist," Angelos said.

One wild card in the process could be Raiders owner Al Davis, who is being courted by his former home of Oakland, Calif.

The league is likely to fight to keep at least one team in Los Angeles, the nation's second-largest TV market.

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