In money game, owners' stakes get higher


March 29, 1992|By VITO STELLINO

The subject is money.

Forget blocking and tackling. In pro football these days, money is the name of the game.

The owners are talking about finding ways of getting more of it because they keep paying more to the players, even though indications are the television gravy train is about to run off the tracks. Financial developments include:

* In Buffalo, where the team has led the league in attendance for four straight years, owner Ralph Wilson is talking about moving the team.

* In New Orleans, Gov. Edwin Edwards has proposed giving the Saints a $50 million package of stadium improvements to lock them into a longer commitment.

* In Detroit, the Lions have given a three-year, $5.475 million offer sheet to restricted free-agent linebacker Pat Swilling of the New Orleans Saints. If the Saints don't match it by tomorrow, they lose him. Either way, the contract will lead to a new round of salary escalation for defensive players.

* In Dallas, the NFL owners will meet on Wednesday, which, appropriately enough, is April Fools' Day, to vote on a proposal to give a rebate to the TV networks. Despite the backing of commissioner Paul Tagliabue, it may be heading for defeat.

* The fourth year of Plan B comes to an end Wednesday with indications that the number of players signed will surpass last year's total of 139. They were closing in on 90 during the weekend, and there's usually a last-minute rush. There was speculation that signings might be down this year, but the teams apparently can't resist throwing money at these marginal players.

Let's take a close look at these developments and what the ramifications are for the sport.


The stadium game: In New Orleans and Buffalo last week, there was much talk about stadium revenue. Edwards said he'll present a $50 million stadium bill to the legislature when it convenes tomorrow.

It would be financed by extending the bonds originally sold to build the Superdome, backed by a hotel-motel tax. Half the money would go toward adding 94 luxury suites to the current 132. The other half would go toward constructing a new Saints practice facility along with a 12,000-seat baseball stadium for a minor-league team and a public park.

"The city of Oakland is willing to put up $600 million to get the former Oakland Raiders back. That ought to tell you something," Edwards said in explaining why he's proposing the deal that would extend the Saints' lease from 2006 to 2017.

Meanwhile, in Buffalo, Wilson is unhappy with his lease at Rich Stadium. The lease calls for $1.63 million in rent and $2.5 million in maintenance each year.

Wilson told the Buffalo News that if the county doesn't make concessions, "then they won't have a team in Buffalo. It wouldn't move right away, but eventually, along the line, the team wouldn't be competitive." The lease has six years to run.

The fact that an owner whose team has led the league in attendance four straight years is talking about moving is a sign of the times. Attendance isn't the big factor now. It's stadium revenue.

Which is why Baltimore's chances of getting an NFL team look good long-range, regardless of what happens in the expansion derby. If Baltimore is bypassed for expansion, an existing team could be lured here.

That's because Baltimore has the financing for a football-only stadium with all those revenue-enhancing items such as sky boxes and club seats.

The football stadium also got a vote of confidence in the Maryland legislature last week when a bill proposed by Del. Jean W. Roesser, R-Montgomery, to cut $9.4 million from the stadium fund lost, 75-40. It showed that despite the budget crunch, the football stadium still has strong political support.

@4 It makes Baltimore a player in the stadium game.


To match or not to match: Jim Finks, the general manager of the New Orleans Saints, has to decide by tomorrow whether to match the $1.825 million a year offer that Detroit made to Swilling or give him up and get two No. 1 draft picks from the Lions. The contract will make Swilling the second-highest-paid defensive player, behind Lawrence Taylor of the New York Giants, who averages $1.833 million a year.

Finks sounded as if he might pass on Swilling. "We hate to lose a good player, but it goes beyond that. We've got to look at things like keeping payroll integrity in the organization and whether we have a replacement," Finks said. He's also looking at what players the Saints might get with the Lions' first pick.

Even if the Saints pass, Swilling's contract will likely boost defensive salaries around the league.


Just say no: At the meeting in Phoenix a week ago, Tagliabue tabled the proposal to give the TV networks an $8.5 million rebate, from $41 million to $32.5 million in 1993, in return for a two-year extension at the lower figure.

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