'Playing Hardball,' written for baseball, expands into football

Phil Jackman

March 24, 1993|By Phil Jackman

The cities had worked for years, not only to be considered fo a pro franchise but for the sport involved to even consider expanding.

Any time it looked even half-promising, however, obstacles, either real, imagined or fabricated, rose up to block the path of progress and/or justice.

After a while, some cities, but mostly individuals, wearied and lost heart and the process continued on at snail's pace.

Sound familiar?

A book entitled "Playing Hardball" is just about ready for public consumption, and although it deals with "the high-stakes battle for baseball's new franchises," it doubles as a primer for what is currently going on in football.

While it's true the two sports appear to be about as alike as apples and oranges, just a few pages in and the reader comes to the realization that it's all one: Business.

David Whitford is the author and he's well qualified to delve into the behind-the-scenes shenanigans of sport having previously done so on both the amateur and pro level for both business and sports publications.

Out of the NFL meetings in Palm Desert, Calif., yesterday, we learned that "things are heating up" with regard to expansion. This was according to expansion committee member Norman Braman, owner of the Philadelphia Eagles. And he went on to predict that the NFL will stick with its most recent timetable for awarding two expansion franchises.

Expansion, as far as fans in at least 10 cities coast to coast are concerned, should have been a top priority for league owners for at least the last six years. Encouraging that they're finally getting around to doing something positive about it, assuming that turns out to be the case.

"Hardball" focuses mainly on the new Florida Marlins and Colorado Rockies teams joining the National League this season. But it does not overlook the losers in the expansion derby, the St. Petersburgs, the Washingtons and the Buffalos and in so doing we can draw parallels to similar transgressions in pro football.

For example, just as the ill-fated Continental League in 1961 prompted immediate and on-going expansion in baseball during the last 30 years, the American Football League did likewise (via merger) to pro football, only at a far slower and barely measurable pace.

That proposed Continental League, incidentally, was to contain 10 teams and, through 1977, just 16 years, eight of them had made their way into the major leagues. Until July 5, 1991, Denver was one of two "originals" still out in the cold.

After getting the run-around for at least a decade, baseball acquiesced and, in 1989, promised (sort of) two expansion franchises would be awarded sometime in the future. A total of 17 groups from 10 cities set up to vie for the two openings and this is with a few late pullouts.

Early on and a year prior to expansion, the leaders in the hunt and already named to a "short list" were 1. St. Petersburg, 2. Washington, 3. Buffalo, 4. Denver and 5. Phoenix.

You will note Miami (or Florida) isn't included and wasn't until, miraculously, it showed up on said short list.

Assuring this late switch was the presence of Wayne Huizenga in South Florida, Mr. Blockbuster Video and Waste Management stepping in to purchase half of Joe Robbie Stadium and 15 percent of the Miami Dolphins.

St. Petersburg had been a lock for a franchise prior to "Wayne's Whirl," baseball saying it was about time it opened for regular-season business in the Sunshine State. It literally made no difference that St. Pete had put itself on the line by building the Suncoast Dome.

As National League president Bill White said during an inspection tour trip to Denver, "This is strictly a business deal. The franchises that are able to pay and to demonstrate financial stability are the ones that are going to get the award."

This warning, in effect, charged folks in Colorado to go out and get themselves such an unbelievable stadium lease deal that the ballclub already is worth more than half the teams in the league and will be for years to come.

The deal could well cause the Orioles to ring up the Stadium Authority to ask for similar concessions in order to improve upon its guesstimated profit of $18 million last season.

Denver is paying for the new ballpark, $156 million. The Rockies get all revenues from concessions, parking, novelties, luxury boxes, stadium advertising and all the revenues from events it can schedule into Coors Field year-round. It pays no rent until the year 2000, then pays 2.5 percent of owners' net taxable income thereafter. Net taxable income is an item even a first-year accountant student can get to read zero by mid-semester.

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