There would be nothing suite about selling false NFL hopes

John Steadman

March 03, 1993|By John Steadman

So far the National Football League has offered a level playing field for would-be expansion cities. It's drastically different than what Marion Motley once said about facing the Pittsburgh Steelers in Forbes Field: "For some reason I feel as if I'm running downhill."

Everything the NFL has done to this point in the expansion derby has been consistent. There have been no unreasonable demands or preferential treatment for any of the players. It has been the same for the five competitors -- Baltimore, St. Louis, Memphis, Charlotte and Jacksonville -- which is as it should be.

Commissioner Paul Tagliabue has been diligent in making sure no city takes unfair advantage of another. This is to his credit. Tagliabue, as referee, makes all play by the same rules.

He shut down hospitality rooms when cities were vying for attention, whether they were offering crab cakes, ice cream cones, steamed shrimp, cruises or sets of golf clubs. "I don't think you award franchises on the basis of the kind of party you put on," he said.

When St. Louis attempted, two years ago, to solicit season ticket sales he stepped in and blew the whistle. That put an end to that. He was, in the best tradition of his position, protecting a public that is too often violated by sports entrepreneurs. It was his belief such huckstering couldn't be condoned.

Tagliabue has moved the expansion process to a point that the two winning cities will be announced as early as May or as late as October.

Nothing regarding expansion is going to happen at the ownership meetings this month in Palm Springs, Calif. He also reminded the cities no more than two representatives can come from any expansion group and, in fact, made it clear the league would prefer they not be there.

But Tagliabue and his assistant, Roger Goodell, have not gone so far as to issue an edict that candidates must absolutely, positively stay home. They also have said a lack of attendance at the meetings will not in any way jeopardize the chances for a city to gain a franchise.

From another aspect, there are pending issues relative to expansion that hopefully won't happen. Nothing has been formalized, but there's a chance the league may ask the five cities to undertake a selling plan for club seats and suites. This is not to be confused with season tickets, but the kind of high-priced accommodations businesses and industries would purchase.

Why? The league believes this would prove the support that the projections in the respective city applications have indicated. In Baltimore, the corporate community already has guaranteed the sale of 12,345 full season tickets for the Orioles on a 10-year basis. A similar promise was made to the NFL.

What a city says it is capable of doing should be accepted without having to put money on the line.

More disturbing is that once a city begins such an effort, accepting monies for tickets, be they seats in the end zone or luxury boxes, it immediately creates a feeling of false hope in each locale. That's not in the best interest of the NFL or the public.

Under the present expansion formula, simple deduction tells us three cities are going to be disappointed when the selections are made. Yes, there will be three also-rans and, again, a terrible jolt to the pride and ambitions of those on the losing side, compounded by the fact they had their corporate leaders commit to writing checks for expensive seats.

It might be regarded as a fair kind of tie-breaker since it would increase the pain and loss of civic pride that's going to come to cities that get NFL rejection slips. The league has not said it is going to utilize the plan as outlined but has admitted it is under consideration.

The NFL, to this point in the expansion game, has made it clear to all participants the rules are not going to be bent. Goodell monitored the situation and when cities attempted to gain an edge he dispatched letters outlining what they can and can't do.

It's going to be a sensitive time period, the next six months, and hopefully the league will decide against imposing the "cash up front" plan because it is taking unfair advantage of five cities -- only two of which, in the end, are going to have their hopes fulfilled.

The rest get their money back, which will be small compensation for the hurt inflicted when only two are invited to join the NFL.

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