What the Carolina entry in the National Football League expansion process wants to do is start taking orders for "club seats and luxury boxes" so it can finance the building of its proposed stadium. The effort would not include the general sale of tickets, but what is being discussed qualifies as both unusual and premature -- considering that the two expansion cities are not scheduled to be named until October.
The idea was first broached at the gathering of expansion cities at a December meeting in New York, but commissioner Paul Tagliabue wisely did not grant approval. Officially, the Carolina contingent, headed by Jerry Richardson, has not formally asked for permission. It's anticipated such a request would not be taken up until the league moves into its next stage of expansion studies, in mid-March.
Mark Richardson, Jerry's son, is general manager of Richardson Sports. He likens the plan to the creation of a planned office building, where the owners lease space in advance before going to a bank for financing. "We contemplate a privately financed stadium," Mark Richardson said. "Just like a 20-year bond or a mortgage on a house. Maybe this would happen after the March meeting of the NFL. Building a stadium and buying a team are two separate projects for us."
So what's wrong with waiting until October when the expansion winners are expected to be announced?
"It would push back our schedule from six to nine months," he said. Yes, but all the other cities vying for consideration, certainly Baltimore and St. Louis, would then be placed at a disadvantage. Hopefully, this isn't the way the expansion game will be played.
Everything about the Carolinas' proposal has been first rate: An unprecedented marketing concept directed to the football audience in two states; a former NFL player and eminently successful business leader, Jerry Richardson, serving as the majority owner; and the extraordinary way the Richardsons have presented themselves. It has all caught the imagination of the nation -- not to mention the interest of league officials.
But now things are tilted just enough to offer serious concern about the overall stadium financing. If Charlotte gets permission to sell ticket subscriptions of any kind in advance of being awarded a team, it will be interpreted as the league demonstrating bias on behalf of one city.
This certainly will not play well in the other nine places actively seeking expansion clubs. It would be granting Charlotte preferential treatment against the rest of the competition. Rules need to be the same for all with no exclusions or special options.
At no time has the league waivered from its standard operating procedures, and it has thus far gone to extremes to see a "fair shake" is given to all expansion contestants. To grant an exemption to Charlotte and the Carolinas would be making an exception that could prove embarrassing to the league.
If granted the go-ahead, the Carolinas franchise would be in a position to "shop" the NFL name on its own behalf. The other nine cities bidding for expansion favor don't need this kind of relief. It would, of course, be telling potential buyers of boxes if they write a check in advance they will be assisting in the construction of the new uptown Charlotte stadium. And, of course, furthering the cause of securing a team six months down the line.
Subliminally, those same early patrons will be convinced the NFL is coming their way without a word from the expansion committee members or Tagliabue. The NFL should not allow itself to be "used" by any applicant. Either the cities lining up have the entire starting fee to afford expansion or they don't qualify. It would be unfair to reshape the rules this far along on the road to expansion for the sake of providing an accommodation.
If Charlotte wins it should want to know it followed the rules and didn't come in a side door. To do otherwise would put the league in a position of compromise.