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This time, for real: The NFL may be coming!


HAVEN'T WE heard this one before? A football team threatens to leave town unless a new stadium is erected; the voters turn down a referendum; the team starts looking around for an alternative city. . . and Baltimore's name is floated.

The Seattle football team plays in the 19-year-old Kingdome, the place where ceiling tiles fell before an Orioles game last year. Voters narrowly rejected a small rise in the sales tax to pay for a fancy, retractable domed stadium. As a result, both Seattle's football and baseball teams are making noises about moving.

Is Baltimore about to be used as a pawn once more by National Football League owners trying to pressure their local officials into financial concessions?

Perhaps. But the situation in the world of NFL owners has changed markedly since Baltimore's last go-round as a bride left at the altar.

No longer is a pro-football club a profitable oil-gusher. Eight or nine teams are in trouble; three or four are losing substantial sums. A new minimum salary scale is squeezing the bottom line, as is a drop in attendance. Faced with these realities, NFL teams soon may start a game of musical cities, with the have-nots jockeying for the best alternative sites.

That's where Baltimore has an edge. It's the only city with state-approved financing for a stadium, next to the wildly successful Oriole Park. Profits will be enormous because the state -- through instant lottery tickets -- is footing the bill for the stadium. No mortgage payments to make, no stadium overhead to pay.

Given the void left by the midnight departure of the Irsay Colts, there should be no problem selling out home games. Heck, the Orioles draw 3 million fans a season; 700,000 football tickets per season should be a snap.

But won't Jack Kent Cooke veto a move? Not unless he and the league want a nasty lawsuit. More important to Mr. Cooke is his desire to build a stadium in Prince George's County -- and have the state contribute as much as $75 million.

Mr. Cooke won't get state funds if he blocks an NFL club from landing in Baltimore. The votes aren't there, and Gov. Parris Glendening isn't likely to embrace the Redskins stadium if it means putting a knife in Baltimore's back. Too risky politically.

Besides, some officials doubt Mr. Cooke could line up the necessary support among his fellow owners to block a transfer. He's not very popular. His colleagues are leery about losing a threatened lawsuit.

Mulling moves

With so many teams mulling moves, it will be difficult to nix a shift to Hoboken, much less Baltimore. That's in this city's favor, too.

John Moag, who heads the Maryland Stadium Authority, is quietly negotiating with various NFL teams. It's all hush-hush. He has given them a deadline, and the governor has made it official with a letter to the NFL commissioner. If something doesn't happen by year's end, that magic pumpkin known as a state-built stadium will disappear, and the next step will take place in court.

Which team will try to move here? It could be Cincinnati, which considered Baltimore once before only to be wooed by Ohio officials to stay put. Polls indicate a tax referendum next spring on a new, retractable domed stadium will fail. The same is true in Phoenix, where sentiment is running 3-1 against a state-built indoor stadium.

Don't look for an announcement until after the regular NFL season ends in December. Premature publicity can hurt cash flow: Bud Adams of the Houston Oilers talked openly about his discussions to move to Nashville. Since then, attendance has dropped 25,000 fans a game.

It looks like Baltimore's last, best shot. The financial decline of so many NFL teams could make shifts inevitable. And that luxury stadium is awfully enticing.

Yet given the heartbreak fans here have suffered since the Irsay betrayal, a healthy helping of skepticism is advised. We'll believe it when we see an NFL owner sign on the dotted line.

Barry Rascovar is deputy editorial-page editor of The Sun.

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