Even Tampa faithful can't tip hat to 'Big Sombrero' WILL THE BUCS STOP HERE?

THE BALTIMORE SUN

If Baltimore is going to return to the NFL, it seems that Peter Angelos' attempted purchase of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers is the best shot. Today, in the second of two articles, The Sun examines how keeping the Bucs in Tampa likely depends on what can be done to improve Tampa Stadium. TAMPA, Fla. -- With its graceful, u-shaped lines and open end zones, Tampa Stadium looks to passengers flying into the nearby airport like a giant, tan potato chip or, as it's known to locals, a "Big Sombrero."

But fans often use different terms to describe the 74,301-seat coliseum: old and uncomfortable.

The seats, for example, are long, narrow aluminum benches with no armrests. Jury-rigged backrests provide only 28 inches between rows, vs. 32 in most new stadiums. So cramped is the space that designers mounted the backs extra low so fans would not jam their knees into the seats in front.

Then there are the luxury suites. Sixty were added well after the structure was built, forcing engineers to perch them in three layers atop one side of the bowl, well away from the action, in contrast to modern stadiums, where sky boxes are integrated into the design.

And don't look for any Camden Yards-style bistros or a ritzy "club seat" section.

Tampa's ability to keep the Buccaneers from leaving town will depend on a lot of factors, but one of the biggest may be the venerable Tampa Stadium. If the city can fend off bidders seeking to move the team, it almost certainly is going to have to improve the Big Sombrero -- and do it fast.

"We have spent a lot of money keeping it structurally sound. It's a very intimate stadium, with great sight lines," said Rick Nafe, executive director of the Tampa Stadium Authority, owner of Tampa Stadium. "There isn't a bad seat in the house. I think it can be renovated."

Peter Angelos, managing partner of the Orioles, has said he may be willing to pay $200 million for the franchise, a figure that makes economic sense only if the team is playing in a new, publicly funded stadium such as the one Maryland is offering to build and lease on generous terms.

The team is being brokered by trustees legally required to strike the best deal, and even opposing bidders say they can't touch $200 million for a team playing in Tampa Stadium. Angelos is betting that money will matter in this transaction.

"All in all, I'd say it's a very good situation for Baltimore," he said.

People here say Angelos is kidding himself, and Baltimore, if he thinks the NFL will let the team leave, especially if it's headed for a city with a third the growth rate that is only approximately 40 miles from another NFL team.

Opposition is likely to be fierce. Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles has appealed to the NFL commissioner. Deep-pocketed investors have emerged who are pledged to keeping the team local. The Chamber of Commerce is trying to get everyone to wear an orange ribbon to "Make the Bucs stop here."

Local officials argue that the costs and uncertainty of moving a team -- including league opposition or the imposition of a relocation fee -- minimize its profitability. But they acknowledge that the stadium will have to be retooled, and are talking about spending nearly 20 times the $4 million it cost to build it in 1967.

But Baltimore still could have an edge, even after the work is done.

The money-making potential of stadiums has emerged as the key factor in the financial planning of NFL teams in recent years, due to last year's contract with the NFL players union and the league's revenue-sharing system. The cash generated from food services, sky boxes, stadium advertising and parking is not shared with other teams. Much of it also is excluded from the designated revenues used to calculate the NFL's salary cap.

Haves and have-nots

No wonder, then, that teams across the league are scrambling either to get new stadiums built for them or to move to cities that will. Teams in Los Angeles, Phoenix and Cincinnati are complaining about their stadiums.

"Stadium economics are going to create the haves and have-nots in the NFL, and retrofitting Tampa Stadium is going to be a Band-Aid, delaying the day of reckoning," said Paul Much, a financial consultant with Houlihan, Lokey Howard & Zukin in Chicago who specializes in sports franchises. "In Baltimore, they will be a have. In Tampa Bay, they will be a have-not."

This fact is not lost on Tampa, which joined the league in the 1974 expansion, on the basis of its sunny growth prospects and well-documented football passion.

When news of the team's sale came out two months ago, Nafe, of the Tampa Stadium Authority, brushed off a preliminary renovation plan for the stadium performed years ago. (It was never pursued because the team didn't seem interested.)

Helmuth, Obata & Kassabaum, the primary architect of Camden Yards and Baltimore's proposed NFL stadium, has been given a bare-bones, $10,000 contract to estimate the revenue potential of the renovations by Christmas.

Among the possibilities:

* Mount another four-tiered box of luxury suites on the top of the stands, opposite the current structure, adding 40 sky boxes to the 60 existing ones.

* Install premium restaurants and lounges on the first floor of both superstructures, and limit access to fans in sky boxes and 2,500 redesignated "club seats" around the upper part of the stands.

This, and replacing the benches with modern seats, could be done for $50 million to $70 million, Nafe said.

Will it work?

"It's got to work. We are approaching the thing just like we are going after an expansion franchise," Nafe said. The city does not want to relearn the lessons of Baltimore and St. Louis, where franchises were lost and new ones lured only though top-dollar stadium offers, he said.

But adding new seats would reduce stadium capacity to less than 65,000, cutting into potential revenue and taking Tampa out of the running to be host to future Super Bowls.

Moreover, when the paint is dried, the stadium still would be outdated by modern standards, and the luxury suites probably would not command the same rent those in a new stadium could, said Much, the financial consultant.

Baltimore is offering to build a new, $165 million stadium financed with lottery-backed bonds. Preliminary designs call for 108 sky boxes and 7,500 club seats, a mezzanine-level category of seats that carries an annual rental fee. Like Oriole Park, the new stadium would be crammed with exclusive restaurants, lounges and gift shops.

An estimate of revenues and expenses by The Sun shows an NFL team in Baltimore would be one of the most profitable in sports.

Even with the addition of sky boxes and club seats to Tampa Stadium, it wouldn't measure up to the Baltimore package. Much suggests a retrofitted stadium without the ambience, services or sight lines of a new building, where the suites are integrated into the complex, probably would draw 20 percent to 25 percent less in annual sky-box and club-seat rent.

At 20 percent less, Tampa Stadium would generate $1.6 million from 2,500 club seats and $5.6 million from sky boxes. If, as

discussed, 5,000 club seats are installed, the take would be $3.2 million.

That would give Baltimore a $5 million to $7 million advantage in ticket and premium seat revenues every year -- a formidable hurdle for local bidders to overcome.

"The only way they could be competitive is to tear down the stadium and build a new one. The stadium economics are so overwhelming in Baltimore," Much said.

The inevitable honeymoon the team would enjoy after moving to Baltimore also would give it a better chance of selling out than in Tampa, where the team has the worst attendance in the NFL, he said.

Suite success

Bill Dorsey, publisher and editor of Skybox magazine, agreed that "a new stadium obviously has a better chance of doing better with suites." Other factors affecting luxury seat income are the wealth of the area, size of the corporate community, and the quality of the team, he said.

Here, too, Baltimore stands out. It is richer, slightly bigger and has more corporations than Tampa, although the Florida city is growing much faster.

Some of the local bidders acknowledge the stadium disadvantage, but are betting the league won't let the team move.

"I must tell you, at $200 million, it doesn't work for us. At $180 million, it doesn't work for us," said Bruce Frey, a Chicago developer with a home in Palm Beach, Fla.

His group is studying the economics and hasn't determined a bid, but he noted that the Miami Dolphins were sold for $138 million earlier this year and sell more tickets and luxury suites.

He predicted the league would not allow the team to move, a sentiment bolstered by a letter NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue wrote Chiles this week saying, "We would like to see a strong and successful team in Tampa."

Angelos said the trustees, appointed to run the team by late owner Hugh Culverhouse, will be compelled by fiduciary duty to accept the highest offer. "Their job is to make sure the maximum price is realized," Angelos said.

But the trustees, who have said they would like to keep the team local "all things being equal," say the best deal for them will not necessarily be the highest price. They can take into consideration factors such as whether Angelos' purchase would approved by the NFL and the credit worthiness of the bidders, according to legal experts.

New stadium in Tampa?

J. Leonard Levy, who is chairing a task force to keep the Bucs, said: "I don't think it will require a new stadium. I think it will have to generate more revenue."

He is convinced there is political support for the $70 million in renovations Nafe is talking about. But the area has committed to building a new hockey arena and minor-league ballpark, and has the Thunderdome -- America's only modern baseball stadium without a team.

Tampa-area residents probably would not go along with funding a new stadium, he said. Besides, there is no time to build support for a massive outlay. The trustees have said they want to accomplish a sale quickly, so the new owners can make decisions for next season.

He noted that the last two cities to lose teams, Baltimore and St. Louis, both did so after team owners Robert Irsay and Bill Bidwill grew dissatisfied with their stadium deals. Both teams were forced to share facilities with baseball franchises and felt like second-class citizens, he said.

And, like in Tampa, attendance fell off badly in both cities when team performance dipped. The Colts' final year in Baltimore saw an average of only 42,000 fans, less than the 44,000 the Bucs are drawing this year.

"We may lose it," Levy said, "but it won't be for the reasons that Irsay left Baltimore or Bidwill left St. Louis."

PREMIUM NUMBERS

A comparison of Tampa and Baltimore using the statistics that determine premium seat success:

.................. .................. Baltimore ..... Tampa

Population ....... .................. 2.4 million ... 2.1 million

BGrowth over past 10 years ........... 8 percent ..... 28 percent

TV market ............ .............. 23 ............ 15

Median household income ............. $36,549 ....... $26,035

Households earning $100,000 or more.. 5.6 percent ... 3 percent

Residents age 65 and over ........... 12 percent. ... 22 percent

Leading corporations represented .... 216 ........... 96

Source: Standard & Poor's, Rand McNally, U.S. Census, Nielson Media Research Corp.

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