With old stadium retired, let's talk about a new one



Are you ready for some football?

With the Orioles' season over, Memorial Stadium officially designated a relic, and the politically correct name for the new field finally decided, it's time to move on to that other great pastime of grown-up male children -- pro football.

In the business community, this means turning our attention to the city's chances of winning one of the two precious expansion slots up for grabs in the National Football League. This is no idle topic among grown-up male children because common wisdom does not place Baltimore among the top two candidates for a new franchise.

Common wisdom is often wrong, but it's felt NFL owners would rather not award both slots to cities that have had and lost NFL teams. That list contains Baltimore, Oakland and St. Louis. If one of the teams goes to a new city, the likely winner is Charlotte, N.C., with Memphis, Tenn., a respectable second.

Charlotte nicely fills the void of NFL teams between Washington and Atlanta and has taken over leadership of the South's financial services industry, particularly in the form of NCNB Corp. While perhaps lacking a single big-name, big-bucks owner, Charlotte is viewed as having substantial financial depth to go with its marketing appeal.

Among the three "old" cities, St. Louis is seen as the front-runner because its prospective owner is the Busch family. Through its wealth, domination of the beer industry (no small player in pro sports concessions) and strong ties with sporting events, it's felt the Busch family will receive a very friendly reception in the elite circle of NFL owners.

Most of the attention here has been focused on the groups and individuals that have emerged as Baltimore's shining knights, particularly Malcolm Glazer, a Rochester, N.Y., developer and investor with such a low profile that even the Kodak folks in his hometown don't have a magic moment of him in their files.

Mr. Glazer's sons say he can buy a team for $200 million in cash simply by pulling out his checkbook -- the kind of magic moment that impresses NFL owners and which Baltimore needs to compete with the Busch family in St. Louis.

Baltimore's other bidders include clothing-store impresario "Boogie" Weinglass and author Tom Clancy. They claim less wealth (although they say they'd have no problem pulling together enough money to fund a new franchise) but are certainly more colorful than Mr. Glazer. Seeing Mr. Weinglass' pony-tailed profile in the owner's box or listening to Mr. Clancy discuss nuclear bomb triggers in his post-game comments would be refreshing.

Ownership aside, however, there are two other major concerns about pro football in Baltimore that business people might want to think about. The first is whether the state can really afford to build a new stadium in these lean times. The second is what Baltimore must do to rank first or second in the eyes of NFL owners when it comes time next year to vote on expansion cities.

The Maryland legislature's approval of additional lotteries to fund a football stadium has been viewed as one of Baltimore's major strengths -- give us a team, and we'll build you a great gridiron.

No one's yet suggested that those revenues could be put to better use in dealing with the state's massive budget shortfall, but it's difficult to believe the issue won't surface.

It's also difficult to envision the region's hard-pressed business community coming up with $100 million or so for a new football palace. But devising a scheme to privatize a football stadium would be a wonderful gift to the state.

Such civic support, however, wouldn't necessarily help Baltimore get a franchise. Here, the challenge is to strengthen positive sentiment for Baltimore and, quite frankly, develop a marketing effort to downgrade our rivals.

Win or lose, Baltimore will be better off once the NFL issue is put to rest. It's troubling to ponder how much energy our dwindling pool of business leaders has devoted toward pro football, especially at a time when education, crime and other urban crises have so clearly begged for substantial and sustained attention.

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