Owner's visit stirs Cincinnati


Maryland officials are committed to attracting an NFL team without being used by franchises trying to sweeten their deals at home. But, as the reaction to last week's visit by the Bengals demonstrates, that's harder than it sounds.

Mike Brown, owner of the Cincinnati Bengals, hadn't even boarded the plane in Baltimore for his return trip on Friday when the save-the-team machinery shifted into high gear back home.

A Cincinnati city councilman declared the situation critical, predicting that the team could become the "Baltimore Bengals" within days. A public-private task force on stadiums announced it would meet with Ohio Gov. George Voinovich to update him on progress.

A city that had seemed more concerned with the Reds than the Bengals just a week earlier was suddenly in crisis mode, out to save the endangered NFL team.

What made the difference? A short visit to Baltimore, a city that has been an object of flirtation by six NFL teams over the past 10 years, only to lose them to sweetened deals at home or competing cities.

Maryland officials say they are determined to keep from being a bargaining chip. They're not talking about prospects, are downplaying expectations and have issued a deadline, which they won't reveal, for the Bengals to make up their minds.

And they are advertising the notion that the stadium funding, a $200 million pot of sports gold, likely will be rescinded by the General Assembly next year if no one takes it soon.

"I am keenly aware that we have been used and have the potential to be used and probably are being used now. I approach all of this very skeptically," said John Moag, chairman of the Maryland Stadium Authority.

Since the Colts moved to Indianapolis in 1984, officials from six teams have visited Baltimore with an eye on moving here: the New Orleans Saints, St. Louis Cardinals, Los Angeles Rams, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Los Angeles Raiders and Bengals.

On one particularly dark winter day earlier this year, both the Rams and Buccaneers announced they would not move to Baltimore.

Brown said he is serious about moving the team to Baltimore, and wouldn't have come if he weren't. But the visit, which the team also sought to keep secret, attracted widespread attention in Cincinnati. Brown was followed off the plane by a camera crew from a Cincinnati television station.

"Baltimore does seem to be the new football fake Mecca. You have to explore moving there if you're a good businessman," said Kenneth Shropshire, author of "The Franchise Game," a book about sports team stadiums and relocations.

He said cities such as Baltimore are in a tough position, trying to stay in the game but avoid being used. Among the biggest losers is Irwindale, a small Southern California city that forwarded the Raiders $10 million in 1987, thinking, incorrectly, it had a deal for the team to move there.

"Certainly, you don't want to go to the extreme of Irwindale, but if you want a franchise, you have to have conversations. You want to have reasonable limits on not putting yourself too far out on a limb," said Shropshire, a professor of legal studies and real estate at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.

He said he's skeptical a deadline will make a difference, because it will be tough for Baltimore to say no if reapproached by the Bengals later. But dampening expectations here could sap some of the urgency in Cincinnati, a useful tactic, he said.

Marylanders who met with Brown while he was here say he was honest -- typical of the team owner, according to friends -- about wanting to remain in Cincinnati, his home of 30 years.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said that showed he was not using Baltimore for leverage. But even the mayor sought to downplay lTC expectations. He said Brown was impressed with Camden Yards, but added: "You have to remember he's sending that message back home, too."

Gov. Parris N. Glendening did not meet with Brown, and Schmoke stopped by only shortly during Brown's visit to Camden Yards. Moag said he did not recommend official meetings with either.

"I don't think we go to the mayor or governor until we're ready to sign a piece of paper," Moag said.

Brown spent a relatively low-key day and a half in Baltimore, watching an Orioles game from the stadium authority's sky box, eating dinner at Caves Valley Country Club and touring the Colts' old training complex at Owings Mills, which would be refurbished for a team moving here. A visit last month by other Bengals officials included Memorial Stadium, where the team would play while its new stadium was being built.

This was in stark contrast to the elaborate luncheons with high-powered executives that were held for Cardinals owner Bill Bidwill, who nonetheless moved his team from St. Louis to Phoenix. Or the 1993 expansion effort, during which the mayor and then-Gov. William Donald Schaefer twice appealed to NFL owners in Chicago.

Gordon Scherer, a lobbyist for the Bengals in Columbus, Ohio, said that Brown's intentions are sincere and that he really may move to Baltimore if a deal is not worked out at home. The team cannot afford to continue playing in the outdated Riverfront Stadium, he said.

"He would not have made the trip if he was not serious. There have been serious efforts for two years to work something out here. He's too much of a gentleman to tweak you," Scherer said.

But, Scherer acknowledged, the visit has enlivened interest in Cincinnati.

"Human nature being what it is, it has intensified things a bit," Scherer said.

Guy Guckenberger, co-chair of a tri-state stadium task force and president of the Hamilton County (Ohio) Commissioners, said the region took the threat of losing the Bengals seriously before the visit and isn't doing anything differently now.

"We've assumed he could move, and it's a real possibility. The fact that he is acting on it does not surprise us," Guckenberger said.

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