Ticket drive could distance city from D.C. NFL backers to avoid encroaching on 'Skins

June 17, 1993|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,Staff Writer

When Baltimore's NFL backers launch a drive to sell luxury suites next month, a major part of the state will be excluded from their marketing efforts: the wealthy and populous Washington suburbs.

Organizers, who will announce today the details of the suite-sale campaign, say they have enough fans in the Baltimore metro area to support a team and don't need to wander south in search of customers. One study suggests enough season-ticket interest in the immediate area to fill a stadium three times over.

But the decision to avoid Washington also prevents the potentially damaging accusation that Baltimore is poaching on the fan base of the Redskins. Baltimore's proximity to Washington is generally regarded as its greatest obstacle to getting a team.

Officially, the Redskins say they don't object to a new team to the north and there's no indication that they have tried to block the city's bid. But informally, team owner Jack Kent Cooke has let his reservations about a Baltimore team be known.

"We're aware he is not too keen on it, but I don't think that is going to have any impact on the selection of cities," said Rankin Smith, owner of the Atlanta Falcons and a member of the NFL owners committee overseeing expansion.

At first glance, it would seem Baltimore offers little competition to the Redskins. The Washington team has a waiting list of 45,000 for season tickets and has sold out every game since 1966 -- a league record.

But Cooke is building a new stadium, potentially raising the ante. The facility, to be built adjacent to the 56,454-seat RFK stadium in Washington, will have 78,600 seats, including 331 sky boxes and 15,000 club seats -- luxury accommodations not available at RFK. It is scheduled to open in 1995, the same year the expansion teams begin play.

The extra seats should cut deeply into the waiting list for season tickets and the sky boxes could potentially put the two cities in competition for corporate support. Furthermore, the two metropolises will be merged -- on paper, at least -- later this year when the U.S. Census names the combined region the nation's fourth-largest metro area.

"We are not taking a position one way or the other on Baltimore or any other applicant for a National Football League expansion franchise," said John Kent Cooke Sr., executive vice president of the Redskins, through a spokesman. "It is simply unfair to all the cities applying for a franchise to do so."

But Smith said: "I know he is opposed to it. He probably sells some tickets up there."

Cooke's feelings, which have been relayed informally to the committee, did not prevent Baltimore from becoming one of the five finalist cities and should not prevent it from winning a franchise, Smith said.

Baltimore is competing with Jacksonville, Fla., Memphis, Tenn., Charlotte, N.C., and St. Louis for two expansion franchises to be awarded this fall.

Herbert J. Belgrad, chairman of the Maryland Stadium Authority and coordinator of the city's NFL bid, said, "There has not been any indication of any attempt by the Redskins to block our efforts."

A consultant hired by the city to help prepare its NFL bid received assurances from the team owner that he would not oppose a Baltimore team.

An NFL official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the Redskins have not raised objections to a Baltimore franchise, although the team has often opposed expansion in general. Given the team's opposition to expansion, it's not likely Cooke would sway many votes on the choice of cities, the official said.

NFL teams can sometimes block competition from moving into their market areas, but it's not clear if that would apply to Baltimore or to any city that had a team and lost it without an official vote by team owners to abandon the market.

The Baltimore Colts moved to Indianapolis in 1984 and the league, though it did not sanction the move, did not oppose it either. When the Baltimore Colts joined the NFL in 1950, the owners paid then-Redskins owner George Marshall $150,000 for encroaching on his territory. The Redskins moved from Boston to Washington in 1937.

The Redskins do not have a breakdown of how many fans come from Baltimore, but season tickets have not been available since the days of the Baltimore Colts, team spokesman Mike McCall said.

The Orioles, by contrast, have said they draw about 20 to 25 percent of their fans from Washington.

Baltimore has taken care to nurture its image of independence from Washington. All of the demographic information contained in its NFL application excludes the Washington suburbs. The remaining population, about 2.38 million, is still second to St. Louis' 2.44 million among cities without NFL teams.

And when a Congressional measure to delay Cooke's initial plans for a stadium in Alexandria, Va., appeared last year in a subcommittee chaired by Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., Gov. William Donald Schaefer wrote in opposition. The measure was deleted from an appropriations bill, but Cooke and Virginia were unable to make a deal.

"We have been sensitive about the Redskins-Baltimore situation from Day One," Belgrad said. "We respect that franchise and want their support."

The state's marketing of sky boxes and club seats, to be conducted on a test basis this summer by all the cities trying to get teams, will focus on the Colts' old territory and will purposely exclude Prince George's and Montgomery counties. Inquiries received from Washington and its suburbs will not be ignored, but they will not be actively solicited, Belgrad said.

The Greater Baltimore Committee, a local business group, commissioned a study in 1990 that estimated 199,000 tickets could be sold per game to the 2.3 million people who live within 25 miles of the city. Businesses indicated they would buy up to 700 sky boxes priced at $50,000 per game. Both figures exceed by wide margins the 70,000 seats and 108 sky boxes planned for the stadium.

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