City exhibits its enthusiasm for return of football Fans, stadium bask under NFL spotlight

August 29, 1992|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,Staff Writer

The biggest week of football in Baltimore since 1984 appears to have accomplished precisely what its organizers hoped: it climaxed several years of effort just as the NFL prepares to select the sites for two expansion teams.

"If we were to have rehearsed every aspect of this week, it couldn't have been any better," said Herbert J. Belgrad, chairman of the Maryland Stadium Authority.

Baltimore was the last city to hold a preseason game, and the only one of the five finalists to host a game this year. Played Thursday at Memorial Stadium before a sellout crowd of 60,021, the game was designed to demonstrate Baltimore's support for a team and its long football heritage.

"We've never said to the NFL that there is a moral commitment or you should feel guilty," Belgrad said.

But by parading at halftime nearly 80 former Colts, including Johnny Unitas and Bert Jones, and playing audio tapes of past Colts games, organizers used the city's football history without appearing to be preaching to the NFL about the loss of the team to Indianapolis in 1984.

The league has made it clear that it will use only financial considerations when determining the sites for the new teams. But none of the other cities can claim a football history like Baltimore's, something that might help a new team succeed here.

Baltimore is competing with Charlotte, N.C., St. Louis, Jacksonville, Fla., and Memphis, Tenn., for one of two teams that may be awarded this fall for play in 1994 -- if the NFL goes ahead with its expansion plans.

"We called in our historical chip. It was a celebration of Baltimore's football soul," said Robert Leffler, a former Colts official and head of a local marketing agency active in sports.

The game capped several days of events during which NFL officials met with potential ownership groups, the stadium authority, and others connected with the football effort here.

On Wednesday, they attended a game at Oriole Park at Camden Yards, the success of which has proved an unexpected boost to Baltimore's football bid.

The national acclaim for the stadium's architecture and the Orioles' string of 44 consecutive sell-outs has eliminated any doubt about Baltimore's ability to support a team, Belgrad said.

At one point during Thursday's game, NFL President Neil Austrian pronounced Memorial Stadium more than fit to serve as a temporary site for a team until a new stadium can be built downtown, Belgrad said. The state plans to do just that if a team is awarded to Baltimore.

"All of the comments [from NFL officials] were uniformly positive. We exceeded their expectations," he said.

Austrian said that Baltimore's application was "very strong" and that the city demonstrated clearly that it could support a team.

He called Camden Yards "one of the most exciting places to play baseball in the country."

However, he said that the NFL antitrust trial set to resume Monday in Minneapolis could delay expansion. That could be bad for Baltimore.

Charlotte recently decided to scrap its initial plans to privately finance both a team and stadium, a potential $300 million transaction. Leaders of that city's bid are assembling a new financing package.

"We're ready now. A delay doesn't do us any good. It probably helps Charlotte regroup," said Bruce Hoffman, executive director of the stadium authority.

He said Baltimore's effort was carefully scripted to hit its peak now.

"Our plan was to gradually rise to this," Hoffman said.

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