NFL pass is batted down in Memphis, St. Louis, too

February 22, 1991|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,Evening Sun Staff

When Bob Tisch shifted his loyalty and his bankroll to the New York Giants this week, it left a gaping hole in Baltimore's NFL expansion plans.

The money man was missing.

The plans, though, are still intact. Call that a small victory in the ebb and flow of expansion developments.

Had it not been for a bizarre string of events over the last 10 days, the damage of losing its prime power broker could have been much worse. But St. Louis suffered a serious setback last week when the Missouri State Legislature voted down state funding for a proposed downtown domed stadium. And this week, on the same day Tisch bailed out of Baltimore, Fred Smith, the president of Federal Express Corp., withdrew his candidacy as owner of a prospective franchise in Memphis.

St. Louis' bid for a team is dead unless it gets the stadium vote overturned. Memphis, which banked so heavily on Smith to get a team, appears to have little chance of resuscitating itself in the expansion pool.

By comparison, Baltimore wasn't so badly off after all.

As it is, the city must find a replacement for Tisch, a New York hotel magnate whose worth is estimated at $1.5 billion. That's no small task. But a long line of candidates already is forming. Herb Belgrad's phone was ringing off its hook yesterday, and all the calls weren't from reporters.

The chairman of the Maryland Stadium Authority said he received calls from representatives of two "very creditable" groups wanting to join the line. Although Belgrad declined to identify the callers, there are at least three known groups seeking a franchise for Baltimore and a few more working in anonymity. The known groups are headed by former Green Bay Packers great Bart Starr, Bethesda real estate developer Nathan Landow, and Blast owner Ed Hale.

Belgrad, in charge of damage control in the wake of Tisch's departure, accentuated the positive. He insisted that Tisch will become a lobbyist for Baltimore, and that as such he can do the city as much good inside the league as out.

"It's a temporary setback," Belgrad said. "We're going to rebound and show that Baltimore is just as strong as when Tisch chose us, that we're just as strong and viable an expansion franchise as we were last week."

NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue has announced tentative plans to expand by two teams for the 1993 season, but admits those plans could be adversely affected by the war in the Persian Gulf and the nation's sagging economy. He has yet to appoint a formal expansion committee. In an exhaustive procedure, the league owners first select the new cities and then vote in the respective owners.

The five cities most actively seeking a franchise are Baltimore, Charlotte, Jacksonville, St. Louis and Memphis. News of Tisch's move to the Giants was met in those cities with quiet restraint.

"We feel that Baltimore has a tremendous candidacy," said Mark Richardson, general manager of Richardson Sports, which represents Charlotte's expansion interests. "The demographics of Baltimore have not changed. We view it as a very strong candidate.

"We also feel that Mr. Tisch was a big part of the Baltimore package. Individuals of Mr. Tisch's stature don't come along very often and are very hard to replace. [But] we do understand the decision will be based on marketplace first, with some consideration to ownership. And Baltimore's marketplace hasn't changed."

Fran Murray, minority partner of the New England Patriots and one of the ownership partners in St. Louis, said he didn't think the loss of either Tisch or Smith would prove decisive.

"Our approach is that you're going to make your case on the merits of your city," Murray said. "As great as those two men are, they're really not going to be instrumental in either one of those cities winning or losing the competition. You don't lose men like Bob Tisch and Fred Smith and not feel it. But we believe when the air clears, each city stands on its merits."

Murray said he expects legislation on the St. Louis dome to be passed before next month's league meetings in Hawaii. He called last week's vote a "wake-up call" for his people. In a 9-7 vote, a subcommittee of the Missouri legislature rejected an initial $4.5 million in funding for the $200 million project.

"The reason the vote failed was that the people who presented it to the [legislature] were less than prepared," he said. "Part of the appropriation of funds was made, money for this fiscal year. But not all of the appropriation was made. I feel confident the full appropriation will be made."

Murray also said he would not be surprised if the league backed up its expansion timetable by one year, putting teams on the field for the 1994 season. That would coincide with a new television contract, he said, and afford the league the chance to realign at the same time.

And while three of the five expansion cities were dealing with setbacks, Jacksonville may have gained ground last week when its city council approved a $60 million commitment to renovate the Gator Bowl. The renovations will include the installation of 123 luxury suites, 8,000 club suites and two private stadium clubs.

According to Arthur "Chick" Sherrer, president of Touchdown Jacksonville Inc., 70 percent of the funding will come from the state of Florida and from a hotel tax. The deal calls for a 30-year lease and permanent headquarters for the NFL team at no cost.

"It's a creative and powerful business deal," Sherrer said. "We will rise or fall on the basis of that deal. We feel very good about our position."

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