Buying a ticket into the NFL

March 09, 1993|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,Staff Writer

There have been rallies, name-the-team contests, preseason games and even acts of legislatures. But the NFL still wants to be sure the cities picked for the league's two new teams can support a franchise.

So when team owners meet later this month, they are expected to approve an expansion timetable that would allow for a long-discussed plan for the five competing cities to sell premium seats and sky boxes.

This final test of market strength might work to Baltimore's disadvantage. Not because Baltimore's market is in doubt -- the Orioles were one of the top-drawing attractions in sports last year -- but because it allows competitors, chiefly Charlotte, N.C., to address doubts about their relatively unpopulated regions.

Moreover, the plan is drawing complaints from people involved in expansion who worry it will be expensive and will raise the hopes and tie up the money of fans in the three cities that won't get teams.

But the NFL, which hasn't added a team since 1976, said the choice of cities is too important not to test fully the potential markets. And the ticket sales will be limited to luxury seat holders so "average fans" will not be inconvenienced.

"We said all along that this is one aspect of the process we are exploring. We would not do this until we had a firm timetable, and it would be in the late stages of that," said Roger Goodell, NFL director of club administration and international development.

"We are not doing it for the average fan. These are premium seats," Goodell said.

Besides Baltimore and Charlotte, there are three cities competing for two teams the league says it will name this fall to begin play in 1995: Memphis, Tenn., Jacksonville, Fla., and St. Louis.

The plan still is being worked out, but the ticket sales most likely would begin in late summer and involve collecting substantial deposits for club seats and sky boxes. The money probably would be put into interest-bearing escrow funds in each city to be refunded, with interest, if a city loses the competition and retained if the city wins.

In the case of Baltimore, where, by law, final design of a publicly funded stadium cannot begin until a team is awarded, the sales probably would be based on a generic design involving an average number of luxury seats and boxes.

Selling tickets in advance of getting a team is not new in sports, but this apparently would be the first time it is done in cities with no guarantee they will get teams if they succeed.

When the NBA expanded in 1988, it awarded franchises contingent upon their selling 10,000 season tickets. Baseball had no advance ticket-sale requirements when it expanded last year, and the NFL did not do it the last time it expanded. The Orioles received season-ticket revenue guarantees as part of their long-term lease with the Maryland Stadium Authority.

Conducting the NFL sale might cost tens of thousands of dollars in cities that already have expended several million of public and private money on the NFL effort, according to officials with the cities involved.

Herbert J. Belgrad, chairman of the Maryland Stadium Authority, said: "I'm not sure I agree that it's the best test of corporate and community support. We have a record of support that is second to none."

But, he added, "Baltimore will step forward and do what it has to do."

His sentiments were echoed by Memphis spokesman Pepper Rodgers, who said: "It's not something we'd like to do, but we'll do what we have to do. . . . You get people's hopes up with three cities being let down. We will do it and do it well."

In St. Louis, where an aborted, unauthorized ticket drive several years ago sold 31,000 regular-season tickets and about 65 sky boxes, community groups already have garnered ticket-purchase guarantees for more seats.

"I don't think they are going to learn any more about St. Louis, because it's already here. But I am looking forward to the opportunity to go out and sell these," said Jerry Clinton, a member of St. Louis' ownership group.

Charlotte has been the most persistent advocate of the test sale, presumably because its stadium financing plan is based in part on fans' buying "rights" to season tickets.

"I think it helps the underdogs," said Bob Leffler, a former Colts official and local sports marketing expert working on behalf of Malcolm Glazer's NFL bid. Glazer is competing with two other investment groups that want to own the team in Baltimore, if the city is awarded a franchise.

"I think Charlotte's got to do it -- this is Charlotte catch-up, pass-the-hat time," Leffler said.

Max Muhleman, a consultant working on behalf of Charlotte's bid, said: "We feel that will be one of our great strengths. . . . It is a proof of market."

He said he expects a cap might be applied to marketing expenditures with the drive, to avoid an "open-ended spending contest."

David Seldin, heading Jacksonville's effort, said: "We think the ticket sale is a good idea. It takes a lot of the guesswork out of the process for the NFL."

He said it will allow the NFL to test the financial assumptions made in each city's application.

One possible aggravation for the cities is a proposal by President Clinton to cut from 85 percent to 50 percent the amount of entertainment expenses that can be deducted by corporations. Sky boxes and club seats are not currently deductible, but the food served in them is.

"The food is a very small part of the expenses of leasing a sky box. I don't think this would change their minds," Belgrad said. He said an expected impact from the 1986 tax law, which reduced the deductibility from 100 percent to 85 percent, never materialized.

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