L.A. awarded team with major caveat; If financing unacceptable, Houston gets franchise; Milstein chances darken

THE BALTIMORE SUN

PHOENIX -- The city of Los Angeles has been conditionally awarded the NFL's 32nd franchise for 2002, but it may be only double parked there for six months before moving on to Houston.

In a resolution that was passed 29-2, the owners gave Los Angeles until Sept. 15 to put together a stadium financing plan that will meet league approval.

If Los Angeles fails, the league will give the team to Houston, which has a stadium financing plan in place, but doesn't have the market power of Los Angeles.

The league also moved a step closer to rejecting Howard Milstein's $800 million bid to buy the Washington Redskins, which is expected to trigger a lawsuit by the New York real estate developer.

The Milstein group appeared to suffer another setback when the league's finance committee said it didn't need to hear from any of the group's representatives at a meeting last night, an indication the group doesn't meet the league criteria for financing a team.

The committee will meet again today before making its recommendation to the owners. The committee even contends Milstein hasn't submitted the proper paperwork, though Milstein claims he has.

The Milstein group won the bidding war for the Redskins, who were left in a trust by the team's late owner, Jack Kent Cooke.

Milstein feels he can finance the deal with borrowed money, using the team as collateral, without putting up any cash. He contends this is routine for his real estate deals.

The league contends this isn't a real estate deal and his fiancing plan must include cash. Milstein also contends what the league is really trying to do is keep the team in the hands of Cooke's son, John Kent Cooke.

In any case, it'll probably be up to the courts to decide whether the league's rejection of the Milstein group is legal, if Milstein goes ahead with his threat to sue.

Meanwhile, on the expansion front, Houston took some consolation in the fact the league only gave Los Angeles until Sept. 15 to meet its criteria. Houston was worried it would give Los Angeles until the end of the year.

"Six months is better than 10 months," said Houston businessman Bob McNair, who is heading the Houston effort. "Having a deadline established is something we hoped for."

McNair feels that Los Angeles won't meet the criteria and that Houston will get a team. When McNair asked if he felt he was treated fairly, he said, "The world isn't fair."

The resolution was vague in detailing exactly what the criteria are that Los Angeles is supposed to meet. This was probably designed to make it easier to get the votes for the resolution, which was opposed only by Oakland owner Al Davis and Buffalo owner Ralph Wilson. The ownership was divided on the issue, so a vague resolution was easier to pass.

It was no surprise that Davis, who usually abstains on votes, voted no because he contends he still owns the right to the Los Angeles market, even though he left in 1995. He's suing the league to try to establish that right.

Jerry Richardson, the Carolina owner who is the head of the stadium committee and co-chairman of the expansion committee, made it obvious that Los Angeles' market size -- it's the second largest in the country -- is the reason the league is giving the city every chance to get a team.

"You can't deny the dynamics of the market. It is the entertainment capital of the United States and the world and a great venue for Super Bowls," he said.

But Richardson said he doesn't feel the league can stage a Super Bowl in Los Angeles when it doesn't have a team.

There are a number of confusing issues to be sorted out in Los Angeles if it gets the team. The first is whether the stadium site will be at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum or in Carson, which has a toxic waste problem.

Then there's the stadium financing problem. Ed Roski, heading the bid of the coliseum site, said he has a financing plan for a stadium, but the owners don't seem to be impressed with it because of the lack of public money involved.

"What financial plan?" said Denver owner Pat Bowlen. "We haven't seen any financial plans. What we're looking for is a stadium."

A sidelight to the expansion battle is the bid to realign the league into eight four-team divisions when it goes to 32 teams in 2002.

Dan Rooney, the Pittsburgh Steelers' owner, is leading the drive toward realignment, but he knows realignment has been so difficult to achieve in the past that he won't even use the word.

"We're not talking about realignment," he said. "We're talking about improving the schedule and the schedule format."

When Cleveland comes into the league this fall, the Steelers will be in a six-team division that will also include the Ravens, Bengals, Titans and Jaguars. That means each team will play 10 of its 16 games against the same teams every year. If the league doesn't realign, there'll be another six-team division when Los Angeles or Houston comes in.

Rooney likes a four-team division with six division games, four games against other teams in the conference, four games against teams in the other conference and two so-called wild-card games that would feature attractive matchups.

Realignment -- or improving the schedule -- won't be voted on at this meeting, but will be the subject of much debate before the league expands in the year 2002.

The owners also killed a proposal that the Thanksgiving Day games be rotated instead of played in Detroit and Dallas every year. Kansas City and New Orleans, which sponsored the proposal to rotate the game, contended they give Detroit and Dallas a competitive advantage, but the majority of owners wanted to continue the tradition.

Besides the Redskins sale, the other key item on the agenda today will be instant replay. The owners are expected to vote to bring it back.

Pub Date: 3/17/99

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