Belgrad fears bias to Charlotte Says NFL giving N.C. undue help

March 25, 1993|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,Staff Writer

PALM DESERT, Calif. -- Are NFL officials favoring Charlotte N.C., in the competition for an expansion franchise?

Herbert J. Belgrad, the head of Baltimore's efforts, says they might be.

The normally reserved Baltimore attorney was highly critical this week of an idea under consideration by the league to ask the five finalist cities to demonstrate community support through advance sales of sky boxes and luxury suites.

Under the plan, each city would seek deposits for club seats and sky boxes -- refundable only if the city is not awarded a franchise.

The plan's most active supporter is Charlotte, the only city that has proposed building a new, privately funded stadium. The prospective team owners, who would have to pay for both the team and the stadium -- a bill that could top $300 million -- intend to finance the stadium in part through the sale of "rights" to season-ticket holders.

The city's boosters are eager to show that local fans are willing to pay the extra price and figure an advance suite sale is one way to do that.

But Belgrad, who opposes the plan, said it wasn't raised until Charlotte began having financing troubles.

For that matter, dropping the NFL's ban on corporate ownership teams was not widely discussed until recently -- something else that would help Charlotte, he said.

Both issues are likely to be decided at a May 25-26 meeting of the owners in Atlanta.

"There's somebody up on high that's very favorably inclined to Charlotte," Belgrad said.

Government funding is in place for Baltimore to build a stadium if it wins a franchise, something that greatly enhances its chances.

Belgrad says the advance suite plan would be costly and would raise the hopes in the three cities that will not win one of the two new teams.

The league would learn little from the exercise that it doesn't already know, he said.

Making the plan optional, as has been suggested by some NFL rTC officials, would be a "farce," he said, because no city would want to sit it out for fear of being shown up by the competition.

Roger Goodell, the league's official in charge of expansion, said no decision has been made on whether to conduct such a sale. But he said the idea has been openly discussed since expansion began, and was not raised in response to Charlotte's troubles.

As for favoring Charlotte, Goodell said "absolutely not."

NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue also denied any friends in high places for Charlotte, saying, "I don't know who. . . . It ain't me."

He said allowing corporate ownership is under discussion, but said it has been for many years.

One unabashed supporter of Charlotte is Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones. "I think everyone in the NFL knows and feels that Charlotte -- that entire part of the country -- would be a complement to the NFL," he said.

He sees funding as a key issue, however.

"It's a fine city and market, but they are competing with cities that can use public funds," Jones said. "It's a real disadvantage."

Another member of the Charlotte group suggested Baltimore may be opposed to sky-box sales because it's afraid it would lose the contest.

"We would support doing it because we have a high confidence level in our market. We could understand people who don't have a high confidence level opposing it," said Mark Richardson, whose father, former Colt Jerry Richardson, heads Charlotte's proposed ownership group.

Max Muhleman, a Charlotte marketing consultant, added: "In addition to being a good attorney, Herb's a great posturer. I salute him."

He denied the process has favored his city, saying, "It has been fair."

But other cities also have expressed misgivings about the plan and said it favors Charlotte.

"If I didn't have any money to build a stadium. . . hell, I'd want to do the same thing," said Pepper Rodgers, of Memphis, which, like Jacksonville, suffers from a relatively small regional market and refurbished stadium.

Rodgers said he's told the league he opposes the plan, especially if the league won't allow the cities to make a final selection of team names through which sky boxes can be marketed. The NFL has asked the ownership groups not to discuss names, ostensibly to avoid getting the fans' hopes up.

Asked if the league seemed to be favoring Charlotte, Rodgers said: "I think it seems that way. I don't know if they are."

Jerry Clinton, with St. Louis' bid, said he also sees little point to the advance suite sales.

"We have nothing to prove to the league, but if they want us to we will," he said.

Jacksonville is the only other city besides Charlotte to support the plan. "In our market, fans are looking for a way to show support," said David Seldin, a leader of that city's effort.

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