Put in financial pinch by Patriots, NFL may want to give stable Baltimore hug LTC

PRO FOOTBALL

March 08, 1992|By VITO STELLINO

The NFL likes to think it's a trendsetter. It's certainly proving to be at the forefront of these tough economic times.

That's because the New England Patriots are on the verge of going belly-up and being taken over by the league.

That hasn't happened in the NFL since 1952, when the Dallas Texans became a road team after collapsing financially. The following year, the franchise became the Baltimore Colts.

It wasn't supposed to happen again in these days of billion-dollar television contracts.

But a huge debt and a terrible stadium situation has left the Patriots a basket case of a franchise.

When Florida businessman Malcolm Glazer pulled out of negotiations to buy the Patriots last Friday, the NFL appeared to have run out of potential buyers.

Unless an unexpected angel appears on the scene, the league (( will have to take over the team in two weeks. The only other alternative is moving the team, and the league doesn't want to lose the sixth-largest television market.

All this could have major ramifications for Baltimore's quest for an expansion team.

It'll put even more emphasis on the financial underpinning of the proposed expansion teams. The league can't afford to have a new team start out with a huge debt.

In this financial arena, Baltimore's credentials are unquestioned. It is the only city in the country to have public funding for a new open-air, grass-field football stadium. It also has solid ownership groups.

By contrast, Charlotte, which is supposed to be one of the front-runners, has a major financial problem. It says it will build a stadium with private funds. That will saddle the team with a big debt service so the team won't be on firm financial footing. Does the NFL want to risk that?

Even members of the expansion committee are willing to admit the league is "concerned" about the stadium situation, although NFL Properties is pushing to put a team there.

If the NFL decides to pass on Charlotte, Memphis becomes the logical alternative as a new city. It has the Liberty Bowl and no other major-league sports for competition.

Should Memphis get a team, Baltimore would be a much better geographical fit for the other than St. Louis, which, like Memphis, close to the center of the country.

In any case, the New England financial problems will make the owners look closely at the financial deal offered by each of the expansion cities.

If the owners look strictly at the finances and get past the fact that Baltimore is located between Philadelphia and Washington, the city will look strong in the expansion derby.

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What does it mean for Baltimore?: The question of the moment in Baltimore is whether the city was helped or hurt by Glazer's attempt to buy the Patriots.

The league's spin doctors did manage to do some Glazer-bashing when he passed on the deal. Both The Boston Globe and The Washington Post quoted league sources as saying Glazer has a history of looking into purchasing professional sports franchises before backing away at the last minute.

This simply isn't true. The Glazers had never negotiated to buy another existing sports franchise.

But it's understandable why the league put that spin on Glazer's decision to pass. League officials don't want to admit publicly that the Patriots are in desperate financial shape and the team will continue to lose money in Foxboro Stadium.

The bottom line, though, is that the Glazers showed they're serious about trying to get in the NFL and have the cash to make the right deal.

If the NFL wants a local owner, Baltimore also has Leonard "Boogie" Weinglass waiting in the wings. If they want Glazer's cash, it's available.

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The stadium derby: The financial plight of the Patriots makes it more important for Massachusetts to come up with a new stadium. It's the only answer to the team's fiscal woes.

One problem has always been that the Red Sox have refused to leave Fenway Park for a combination football-baseball stadium. Neither the late Tom Yawkey nor his widow, Jean, would consider leaving Fenway Park.

The future of the Red Sox now is up in the air in the wake of Jean Yawkey's death a week ago. But if the team finds new owners willing to leave Fenway Park, it could make it easier to get public financing. Having two major tenants makes it easier to finance the stadium.

The problem is that the purists in Boston would consider it sacrilege for the Red Sox to leave Fenway Park. The place is virtually a shrine. It's also obsolete, but no baseball purist wants to hear that. The idea of the Red Sox playing indoors in a domed stadium would rile the purists even more.

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More stadium derby: The politicians in Washington still don't understand "negotiating" with Washington Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke. A few weeks ago, Secretary of the Interior Manuel J. Lujan set a March 2 deadline for Cooke to complete negotiations on a new stadium. March 2 came and went and there was no agreement. Cooke, one of the richest men in the world, ignored Lujan. So Lujan set a new deadline of April 3.

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