Bills, Patriots pass ball to public for help in getting new homes Stadium funding faces major hurdles

PRO FOOTBALL

April 11, 1993|By VITO STELLINO

They're playing the Stadium Game in Buffalo and New England these days.

Two franchises that would seem to have little in common -- the Bills have led the league in attendance five straight years and have gone to three straight Super Bowls; the Patriots are near the bottom in attendance and wins -- have a common desire for a new stadium.

That's because merely drawing fans isn't enough to keep owners happy these days. They want stadiums that produce a lot of revenue with such bells and whistles as sky boxes and club seats.

In Buffalo, Erie County, which owns Rich Stadium, spent $260,000 to study the issue, but the Bills weren't happy about that.

"I wish the county had given the Bills the money and we could have gotten a free agent with it," owner Ralph Wilson said.

The study showed costs would range from $126 million, to bring Rich Stadium up to the quality of a new NFL stadium, to $500 million for a domed stadium.

It also showed those hardy Bills fans prefer an open-air stadium. Even Wilson figures that the cost of a dome would be prohibitive.

"We can't ask the taxpayers to build us some Taj Mahal," he said. "We'd rather have a package of assistance in some form or another."

With the lease expiring in 1998, there's going to be a lot of debate in the coming years about how to get the assistance to keep the Bills happy.

In New England, there's not much debate. The Patriots aren't interested in renovating Foxboro Stadium. They want a new stadium and they want it located in Boston.

NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue even went to Boston a week ago to lobby for a new stadium as part of a downtown convention center.

He said Foxboro Stadium is not a "viable alternative" and the legislature should act this session on a stadium bill.

"I tried to get a sense of urgency, because there is a real sense of urgency," said Patriots owner James Orthwein, who plans to sell the team when he gets the St. Louis expansion franchise.

There's another difference between Boston and Buffalo. Unlike Buffalo, Boston is a top-10 market. The politicians know the NFL doesn't want to move the team, and they don't seem too concerned about resolving the stadium situation.

House Speaker Charles Flaherty (D-Cambridge) brushed off Tagliabue by saying the state has enough debt service. "I'm not about to add to that to the detriment of other items in the budget," he said.

That leaves the situation in Boston at something of an impasse.

Meanwhile, the quest by the teams to get public funding for stadiums is encouraging news for Baltimore football fans.

In the expansion derby, Baltimore is one of two cities in the running with public funding for new stadiums; the other is St. Louis. Two others (Memphis, Tenn., and Jacksonville, Fla.,) have old stadiums although Jacksonville has a renovation plan. Charlotte has a private financing plan in which fans will pay a premium for their seats.

It would be difficult for the league to bypass a city with public funding for a new stadium when it expands, and then go to cities that already have teams and ask for public funding.

That doesn't mean there's not going to be a lot of furious lobbying in the next six months. That's why the addition of Ernie Accorsi, who ran the football operations for the Baltimore Colts and the Cleveland Browns, to the Baltimore team is a positive development. He'll give Baltimore an insider's voice the way Charlotte has one with former Seattle Seahawks general manager Mike McCormack.

It helps that Accorsi will have a winning hand to sell. If the owners thought private financing for stadiums was a good idea, the Bills and Patriots would be trying it.

"This is probably the most cut-throat expansion competition have ever seen in 22 years of dealing with different leagues," Max Muhleman, a member of the Charlotte expansion team, recently said.

Right now, the better phrase is cut-and-dried. Unless one of the other contenders comes up with public funding for a new stadium in the next six months, it'll be difficult to derail St. Louis and Baltimore in the expansion race.

The owners will study all the factors, but in the end, they figure to steal a page from the Reggie White book. They'll take the best deal.

Being prudent

St. Louis football fans have to hope that Orthwein isn't going to run the St. Louis team the way he's running the New England team.

It's understandable that Orthwein is trying to run a bare-bones operation in New England. He's just trying to cut his losses until he can sell. He went for a big-name coach in Bill Parcells, but he's keeping his wallet shut.

The Patriots haven't signed any big-name free agents, and Orthwein wasn't happy when Parcells tried to romance his former quarterback in New York, Phil Simms, who stayed with the Giants.

"I'm not really surprised by what's happening around the league," Orthwein said. "But we're not going to throw it [money] around like that. We're going to spend it wisely."

Parcells is being a good soldier -- at least for now.

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