I'll make the call: Fix is in if city is left out by NFL

KEN ROSENTHAL

June 18, 1993|By KEN ROSENTHAL

For all its complexities, the NFL expansion race boils down to one simple truth: If Baltimore doesn't get a team, the fix is in.

In fact, Baltimore might offer the strongest financial package of any competing city, provided it sells 100 luxury boxes and 7,500 club seats between July 1 and Sept. 3, the window mandated by the NFL.

That's not hometown boosterism. That's Logic 101.

In theory, a publicly financed stadium, a choice of two strong ownership groups and a $1 million guarantee for visiting teams ++ should be enough to seal this thing. In reality, the NFL would still prefer a new, untapped market, if only Charlotte had the cash.

Not to get carried away, but this is getting to be a no-brainer. "We can almost smell it," Maryland Stadium Authority chairman Herb Belgrad said yesterday. "We're in the homestretch, and from everything I've been hearing, we're running in front."

A cautious attorney talking trash -- it must be in the bag. Yesterday, Belgrad stood under a tent on the site of the new stadium, pushing the sale of luxury boxes at a gathering of corporate executives and former Colts. The mood was so buoyant, you could almost imagine the first late hit.

Of course, the entire bid will collapse if the premium seats don't sell out. The stadium authority has two months to secure nearly $51 million in commitments. That's no easy task, with so many wealthy types spending half the summer at the beach.

The advance sale isn't Baltimore's idea -- it's Charlotte's. The NFL keeps giving Charlotte every break. It would love to ignore racism charges against Denny's, the restaurant chain headed by Charlotte lead investor Jerry Richardson. Alas, Jesse Jackson stands in the way.

As we all know, the bottom line is all that matters to professional sports owners -- that's why the Carolinas were so attractive to the NFL in the first place. But in any objective analysis, Baltimore now buries Charlotte, and with no ownership concerns, maybe even St. Louis, too.

Know how much an NFL team would cost Charlotte? Not just a franchise fee that amounts to $170 million. No, the total price --including a privately financed stadium -- would be $330 million. The Richardson group can't afford it. Heck, North Carolina's own Michael Jordan couldn't afford it, even after a good day of golf.

The solution, as you might have heard, is the "permanent seat license" -- a one-time, season-ticket surcharge ranging from $600 to $5,400 on 90 percent of the stadium's seats. How does the average fan come up with the money? Through financing from one of the Carolina's four largest banks, silly.

A stadium full of debtors.

A classic house of cards.

The idea is for the PSLs to defray the cost of the Charlotte stadium by $100 million. But the cheapest season ticket for the first year of Charlotte football would cost $790 -- more than double the price in Baltimore.

The plan could work -- the NBA's Charlotte Hornets did a similar thing, and the PSLs skyrocketed in value. But if someone handed you $2,500 -- the average cost of a PSL -- wouldn't you find a better way to invest it?

Besides, even after collecting, the Richardson group still would owe $60 million on the stadium -- $60 million that could help make the team more competitive, $60 million that would be in the pockets of the Baltimore owners.

It all sounds like a huge gamble. If the NFL picks Charlotte because of all the merchandise it will sell in the Carolinas, so be it. That's the only possible reason to exclude Baltimore, and it's rather flimsy. Make black a team color, and let the cash registers ring.

Now, if Charlotte had the stadium, it would be different. The debate over public funding for sports facilities is perfectly valid, especially in a harsh economic climate. But when it comes to NFL expansion, such financing is Baltimore's trump card.

It provides for not only the stadium, but also a sweetheart lease. Thus, the owners can make the $1 million guarantee to visiting teams -- $250,000 more than any other city, according to Belgrad -- and still be left with enough money to sign high-priced talent.

Everybody wins -- the NFL, the owners, even the state, which will net more income than it does from the Orioles' lease. As Mayor Schmoke said yesterday, "There are all the reasons in the world for the NFL to say yes to Baltimore -- and almost no reasons for the NFL to say no."

As we said, it's a no-brainer.

Unless, of course, the fix is in.

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