Delay OK with Belgrad

May 22, 1991|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,Evening Sun Staff XHC VfB

MINNEAPOLIS -- Gentlemen, open your checkbooks.

That's how NFL owners should have begun league meetings today that are expected to provide formal approval to a $l two-team expansion in 1994.

The meetings didn't start that way, of course. But it would have been appropriate because representatives from would-be expansion cities began arriving here last night for this two-day exercise in glad-handing.

For the first time since their 1974 decision to expand, the NFL owners are treating the subject seriously. After listening to a recommendation from the realignment and expansion committee today to expand in '94, they were expected to issue a resolution to move ahead. An actual vote on expansion was not expected, however.

For Herb Belgrad, chairman of the Maryland Stadium Authority and one of those who trooped here for the meetings, this represents progress. Belgrad was undeterred by a report yesterday in The Sun that said the league will take at least 18 months to pick the two new cities.

That means that if Baltimore gets a team, it will have to play at least one and probably two seasons in Memorial Stadium before the new football stadium in Camden Yards could be completed.

"You can't over-react to these things," Belgrad said. 'I would've preferred sooner rather than later. [But] this is a positive step forward. We've gone since 1986 with very little movement [toward expansion].

"Rather than be disappointed, I have to be satisfied we're finally on track. Another six months or a year is easy to live with because of what we've lived with this long."

Belgrad said that in a 1987 meeting with then-commissioner Pete Rozelle, he was assured that playing for a short time in Memorial Stadium would not be "detrimental" to Baltimore's expansion effort. But it might force the city to come up with some extra money to fatten the wallets of visiting teams, who get 40 percent of the stadium gate.

"With the NFL, it's often the bottom line that matters," Belgrad said. 'If they're looking for a 65,000-seat stadium and we can only provide 62,000 seats, it may be necessary for us to come up with some kind of payment to supplement [the visiting team's take]."

That's called an attendance guarantee, and welcome to the high finance world of expansion.

Baltimore should have no problem filling Memorial Stadium with fans, according to a marketing survey commissioned by the stadium authority. Belgrad said the survey showed the city could sell 400,000 season tickets, or "enough to fill six stadiums . . . The response was overwhelming."

Although the NFL has not asked for attendance guarantees of the prospective expansion cities, Belgrad would not be surprised if that were part of the package.

"My guess is yes, they will ask for guarantees," Belgrad said. "History has demonstrated that even where there were very ambitious projects like in Phoenix [which offered ticket guarantees to the Cardinals in 1988], reality did not live up to those projections.

"If we're asked to do it, we are prepared to make the effort to do it."

Based on recent developments with the Orioles, Belgrad is confident Baltimore's business community will deliver when needed.

"We established a precedent with the Orioles," he said. "No other team in baseball has attendance guarantees. And it was never solicited by the Orioles. The business community came up with the idea."

Belgrad said the Orioles have a guarantee of 10,000 season tickets now at Memorial Stadium. When they move into their new park, the guarantee jumps to 12,345 season tickets, or a guarantee of 1 million fans.

As for playing in Memorial Stadium, Belgrad said the stadium authority was in no position to handle a major renovation, but would "bring the playing field up to par." Because the Orioles are moving into their new park next spring, a football team could inherit the baseball team's renovated office space and expanded clubhouse.

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