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NFL teams control recent wanderlust Relocation: Despite what seemed to be a trend, the NFL should face a period of stability thanks to several voter referendums and increased league intervention.

A year ago at this time, the NFL looked like a game of musical chairs that the fans were losing.

Both Los Angeles franchises were playing in new cities. The Houston Oilers were on their way to Nashville, Tenn. The Seattle Seahawks trucked their weight room to Los Angeles. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers looked as if they would be the next to bolt,

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followed by the Arizona Cardinals and possibly the Cincinnati Bengals.

And, of course, the Cleveland Browns were on their way to Baltimore.

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Suddenly, however, the NFL appears to have rediscovered hometown loyalty. In a league that was beginning to resemble a collection of nomadic tribes, it is remarkable that most of a season has gone by without a team announcing a move.

Is "franchise free agency" dead? More likely, it's just napping. The league still has little legal right to block teams that want to move, and the sport's peculiar economics provide plenty of incentives for moving to a better stadium, even in a smaller city.

But observers say the odds are against the sort of wholesale migration that gripped the sport last year. The newfound stability is the result of a number of factors, many of which stem from Baltimore's getting the Browns, now the Ravens:

With St. Louis' dome now full, and Baltimore's lease signed, there are no more NFL wannabe cities with funding in place to build a stadium. And as construction costs top $200 million, fewer will be tempted to get into the game.

Unnerved by the sight of the Browns jilting the most loyal fans in sports, voters in five cities have approved NFL stadium funding referendums this year. This has kept those teams from calling the moving vans.

The league, awash in criticism for its frequently flying franchises, has abandoned its taboo against interfering with club/city stadium talks. The results are mixed but the league is actively working in cities now, nudging team owners toward compromise and campaigning for stadium votes like candidates for office.

"You had a confluence of events last year which caused the matter to come to a head," said Marc Ganis, a Chicago-based sports consultant.

"It was a unique time period. That's not to say it won't happen again. But by their very nature, when a crisis gets resolved, it spawns stability," he said.

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Cities still at risk

Several teams still have stadium problems and have to be considered candidates for moving. The Cardinals and New England Patriots top this list. The Indianapolis Colts are making noises of dissatisfaction, and the Denver Broncos and Chicago Bears are still in the heat of stadium talks. Furthermore, the NFL ++ has to put a team in Cleveland by 1999, and wants one in Los Angeles. Unless it's done through expansion, these cities will take teams from elsewhere.

But two powerful magnets have been eliminated: St. Louis and Baltimore. Both cities came out of the NFL's 1993 expansion without teams but with tempting stadium offers in place. After lengthy courting, the Rams moved from Los Angeles to St. Louis in 1995 and the Browns went to Baltimore.

Memphis, Tenn., the other losing expansion finalist, never committed funding to a new stadium. But its championing of Tennessee and the "Mid-South" market may have played a role in Nashville's obtaining the Oilers.

Also, last year's frenzy of team moves made believers out of some cities that might otherwise have taken their teams for granted. If the Browns -- one of the most avidly supported teams in history -- could leave Cleveland, how could the tepid fans of Tampa, Fla., hope to keep their team?

"There have been a lot of stadium deals struck because of the Browns' move," said Robert Harlan, president of the Green Bay Packers.

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The result: a dramatic reversal in fortunes for the NFL at the voting booth. A league that has for years found itself on the losing side of stadium referendums is 5-for-5 over the past year. Voters have approved stadiums in Tampa, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Detroit and Nashville.

"I think the politicians and the league are doing a better job of listening to each other," said John Moag, chairman of the Maryland Stadium Authority.

"In the past, if an owner said, 'I need a new stadium,' the response was, 'Go to hell and take your team with you,' " said Moag, who lured the Browns to town.

Moag has been critical of the league's relationship with its host cities. But he said the NFL has gotten more proactive in the wake of the Browns' move.

In May, commissioner Paul Tagliabue issued a moratorium on team owners talking to other cities before the season is over, threatening a fine of up to $500,000.

Although the rule could easily be circumvented by use of surrogates, it indicated some newfound resolve by the commissioner, who has been widely criticized for not doing more to keep the Browns in Cleveland.

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"I think there's been a lot of concern because of the backlash. I think the league got very concerned, and it's much quieter now," Harlan said.

Tagliabue and his lieutenants have intervened recently in cities with franchises at risk. In the past, stadiums were considered the exclusive domain of team owners and their cities and the league office stayed away.

To help nudge stadium deals along, Tagliabue has held out the tempting bauble of being host to a Super Bowl to cities that build new venues.

It works. Voters in Tampa this year approved a funding plan similar to one rejected a year earlier. Consequently the city will keep its Bucs, get a new stadium and, in 2001, play host to a Super Bowl. Detroit is expected to get another, after approving funding this month for the Lions' new stadium.

Tagliabue and NFL vice president Roger Goodell spent weeks in Seattle this year, ultimately persuading Microsoft Corp. co-founder Paul Allen in April to take out a 14-month option to buy the Seahawks. This stopped, at least for a while, the team's plan to move to Los Angeles. Talks on getting a better stadium continue.

"Tagliabue really, really sat on those guys," said Max Muhleman, a sports marketing consultant who has worked for a number of NFL teams, including the Ravens.

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And when the league agreed to contribute up to $48 million to build a stadium in Cleveland, it got, in exchange, unprecedented control over a market that could easily have become an attractive nuisance. The city waived its right to recruit teams and signed a lease on its stadium with the league, which will turn it over to the team of its choice before 1999.

The gambit has its limits, however. Los Angeles officials have engaged in a standoff with the league, based, it appears, on the belief that the television networks will exert pressure to get a team returned to the second-largest TV market.

Owners passed a resolution two years ago granting the league control over the Los Angeles market, submitting any relocation to a vote of the other owners. But its legality is untested. Tagliabue said recently he doesn't foresee a team returning to Los Angeles for the rest of the century.

Recognizing the growing importance of stadium revenues on a team's ledger, the league has appointed a committee of owners, chaired by Carolina Panthers owner and former Baltimore Colt Jerry Richardson. The committee is trying to get the NFL caught up with baseball in the race for new, highly acclaimed facilities (there is no Camden Yards in the NFL).

Richardson and top league officials have flown into cities at risk, such as Denver a few weeks ago, to press the case for public funds.

At the same time, the league is trying to wean itself from stadiums built solely at public expense. It is pushing for contributions from the teams, taxpayers and fans.

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Muhleman has been part of the drive to raise stadium money by charging fans for seat licenses. Although unpopular, the device has raised millions of dollars for stadiums.

More fundamentally, however, the parade of wandering teams had to peter out when cities stopped putting up the money for stadiums, said Bob Leffler, a Baltimore-based sports marketer who represents several NFL teams. "There's only so many places to move to," Leffler said.

But the ultimate solution to stopping the game of musical chairs -- sharing stadium revenue equally like the teams share their network TV money -- has eluded the NFL. Because the league divides up 90 percent of its revenue, from ticket sales to merchandise revenue, teams have found gold in luxury boxes, concession deals and stadium advertising precisely because it's not shared.

"The league could solve this problem real quick: share all revenues," Moag said.

Ravens owner Art Modell -- who knows as well as anyone the attraction of a new stadium -- is one of the most ardent supporters of expanding revenue sharing, even through it would cost his team money.

"We're a bunch of capitalists running a socialist league," Modell said.

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Pub Date: 11/17/96


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