Grab the ball, Baltimore

June 21, 1993

It's put up or shut up time. Instead of asking the Nationa Football League to "give Baltimore the ball," the time has come for business and community leaders to grab the ball and run with it.

Government officials have done all they can to convince the NFL to give Baltimore one of the two expansion franchises it will award in October. The Baltimore metropolitan area has an iron-clad promise of a new football stadium adjoining the baseball gem at Camden Yards. The Maryland Stadium Authority has spread the welcome mat as widely as possible. Two ownership groups, one of them locally based, have agreed to put up the $170 million price tag of the franchise. Now it's up to the local community -- the well-heeled part of it, at any rate.

The Baltimore region has mourned the loss of the beloved Colts for nearly a decade. It has a chance -- a very good one, by any reckoning -- to replace them in its hearts. Unlike some of the competing cities, public financing for a new football stadium is already committed. Two potential ownership groups have the money not just to pay the franchise fee but also to start building a creditable team. The stadium authority stands ready to sign a lease that would give financial stability to the new owners in short order as well as guarantee substantial revenues to the visiting teams.

Primarily to permit rival Charlotte, N.C., to prove it can finance a team without public funds for a new stadium, the NFL is asking the contending cities to get firm pledges for leases on premium seats. This includes the luxury sky boxes as well as the plush seats on the club level. While there can be no doubt Baltimore would sell out a 70,000-seat football stadium the requisite 10 times a year, the luxury seats really pay the bills. Without them no major league franchise can be financially sound any longer. So that's the last challenge to the Baltimore community.

Selling out the prime locations will not be easy. The sky boxes will rent for $45,000 to $105,000 a season, with a minimum of three seasons. Seats on the club level will cost up to $1,700 just for the rights to them. Ticket prices will be extra. That adds up to a commitment of $50 million, with $16 million in cash due right away.

Only the metropolitan area's leading businesses and wealthiest individuals can be expected to respond to this challenge. Some have already done so, and the Baltimore region's business leadership has organized to solicit the rest of their colleagues. An NFL franchise is a demonstrably good investment, for the community as well as for the potential owners. As the leadership committee put it, it's now or never.

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