On city's NFL clock, time is left for 1 improbable play

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It would be the ultimate irony, the NFL's turning to Baltimore in desperation, instead of the other way around.

And it might be the city's last hope.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening says the funding for a downtown football stadium might be revoked if no viable NFL alternatives exist for Baltimore at the end of the year.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke wants to construct a downtown arena instead, but such a plan would require new legislation, and is unrealistic without a commitment from either the NBA or NHL.

It's the NFL or nothing.

And the league's sudden need to expand into Los Angeles could create an opening, however slim, for Baltimore.

"It's not a crazy possibility," said John Moag, chairman of the Maryland Stadium Authority. "It's a reasonable possibility."

It's a delicious possibility, considering the NFL expanded into Jacksonville rather than Baltimore, and presumably would prefer Huntsville, Ala., to Baltimore.

Will it happen? We'll believe it when we see it. But at least the state finally is adopting a "No More Mr. Nice Guy" strategy.

Give us a team, or we'll pull the funding.

Give us a team, or we'll sue.

The idea of an antitrust lawsuit would be to prove that the NFL tried to restrain competition by keeping a team out of Baltimore.

The goal would be a settlement that would result in a payment or Baltimore's getting a team.

The way Moag sees it, the NFL won't put two expansion teams in Los Angeles -- the Raiders' Al Davis didn't want to share the proposed Hollywood Park stadium, and neither would another owner.

"How do you balance it out?" Moag said. "You add another team. Where do you add it? Baltimore, symbolically, would be a terrible loss for the league. It's the only public-funded stadium available.

"We can fix a problem they have right now. We're the only place where if they want a deal, all that is required is a signature on a piece of paper. And I think the possibility of a lawsuit from Baltimore does scare them."

Does that possibility exist?

"It's something we're taking a look at," Moag said.

If Moag sounds urgent, it's for good reason. The mayor is jumping ship. And the governor is far less obsessed with Baltimore's NFL chances than his predecessor, William Donald Schaefer.

Glendening wasn't mayor of Baltimore when the Colts left. He previously was county executive of Prince George's County, where the Redskins are planning to move.

"What we'll have to do is toward the end of this year make some type of assessment: Are there enough viable alternatives that we can responsibly go back to the legislature and say, 'Give us one more year's extension' ?" Glendening said.

"If our conclusion is there are no real viable alternatives out there, then I think there are pressing needs for that funding, including school construction."

Sen. John Pica, the head of the city's senate delegation, said he would oppose legislation to rescind the funding. Such legislation would require majority votes in both houses and the governor's signature.

"It's too early to throw in the towel," Pica said. "If they want to eliminate that funding, they should know in advance they'll have to take it away from the people of Baltimore. They should be prepared for a fight."

However, State Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. cited public safety and prison construction as additional concerns that could take precedence over the wooing of NFL teams such as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

"I don't know what will happen next year, but most likely some portion of the money could -- and should -- be siphoned off to meet some of the state's major needs, including major social problems in Baltimore City," Miller said.

Schmoke, meanwhile, has other ideas.

jTC "Our prospects just don't look good for getting an NFL team any time in the near future," Schmoke said. "Rather than have that money go to the general fund, I think it would make a lot of sense to build an arena next to Camden Yards."

In theory.

Not in reality.

First, the stadium legislation would need to be amended to allow for the construction of an arena. That wouldn't happen without a fight. "If we're not going to do football, then there are going to be a lot of people who are going to lay claim to that money," Moag said.

Besides, why would you construct an arena without a tenant? The Bullets and Capitals no longer appear to be candidates -- Abe Pollin plans to move them to a new arena in downtown Washington. As Glendening put it, "You would need a team."

Without one, no major corporation would be willing to pay $1 million a year for sponsorship rights, the way USAir did to attach its name to the Capital Centre.

Crowds would be smaller and the television coverage limited, leading to lower advertising revenue. And it would be difficult to stage 225 to 250 events a year, which is the average at USAir Arena.

"I think we'd have a tough time showing the economics work without at least one major-league team," said Bruce Hoffman, executive director of the stadium authority.

Schmoke, caught up in an election-year fantasy, said the city would attract NBA interest if it committed to building an arena.

An NBA spokesman, however, said the league isn't expected to expand again before 2000. And the only city that commissioner David Stern has mentioned publicly is Mexico City.

Here's the clincher: Pollin would be as protective of his territory as Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke, and almost certainly would discourage any move to put a team in Baltimore.

The NHL?

Bob Teck and Alan Gertner, owners of Baltimore's new AHL franchise, have made no secret of their NHL aspirations. But not even Schmoke is convinced this is an NHL town.

"I'd like to see how this new hockey team does," he said. "What I've seen so far is a core of 6,000-8,000 hockey fans, maybe larger if we got an NHL franchise.

"Our AHL experience indicates that's what we have. I don't think that's enough to attract the NHL."

It's possible Baltimore could steal an NHL team -- the Minnesota North Stars moved to Dallas, the Quebec Nordiques are moving to Denver, the New Jersey Devils could move to Nashville, Tenn. -- but do you build an arena on that premise?

Pollin would again discourage a team in Baltimore. Of course, Baltimore could agree to pay half its franchise fee as compensation to the Capitals. That's how the Los Angeles Kings collected $25 million when the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim entered the league.

Rather far-fetched, don't you think?

Again, it's the NFL or nothing.

Maybe the stadium authority should just sue -- the NFL didn't try to stop the Rams from moving to St. Louis, and it probably won't try to stop the Raiders from returning to Oakland.

"The decision to have peace and not to have war was a big factor," commissioner Paul Tagliabue said when the league surrendered to the Rams.

Why risk losing a lawsuit when a team in Baltimore could turn a $30 million annual profit? It's a logical question, but logic never seems to be a factor when it comes to Baltimore's NFL chances.

Cooke is a factor, but the encouraging part is, his circumstances also are different from the time of the last expansion.

Cooke abandoned his plan to construct a new stadium in Laurel, and now is seeking to build in Prince George's County, inside the Capital Beltway.

"One of the members of the fraternity was blackballing us, but I don't think we have that [problem] anymore," Moag said.

"Cooke needs us to do the deal in Prince George's County. He needs the state. We're not going to help Jack Kent Cooke, obviously, unless we're getting his cooperation on Baltimore as well."

As usual, Cooke dismissed the idea that he was more influential than other owners on the Baltimore issue.

"I have one vote out of 30 in the NFL," he said. "That represents roughly 3 1/3 percent of the league ownership. It will be decided, as all matters in the NFL are decided, by all 30 owners."

Thirty desperate owners, if Los Angeles gets only one expansion team, and other cities -- most notably Toronto, with its 53,000-seat SkyDome -- are deemed unsuitable.

It would be the ultimate irony.

The final improbable twist.

' The only proper ending.

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