Third Down and Three to Go

June 21, 1993

"Give Baltimore the Ball" is the slogan of a group promoting sale of luxury boxes for the hoped-for football stadium next to Oriole Park. "Grab the Ball, Baltimore" might be more appropriate.

After nine years of agonizing over the theft of the beloved Colts, Baltimore has a chance to regain a National Football League franchise. The state and city governments, the Maryland Stadium Authority and potential local owners have done all they can. Now it's up to the business community and well-heeled fans to make it a reality.

Baltimore's metro area has a very strong case for an NFL franchise. Sentiment aside, the region has demonstrated it is still football-crazy and a great market for major league sports. Baltimoreans may not flock to minor league hockey or indoor versions of outdoor sports, but they respond in a big way to big-time competition.

Unlike some of the area's competitors, public financing for a new stadium is in place. The stadium authority and Orioles have proved that this community can build a classy stadium and fill it consistently. Two well-financed groups -- one local, one out-of-town -- are ready to put up the $170 million to buy a franchise and have enough left over to build a creditable team. A lease on a football stadium would be attractive, to the visiting teams as well as to the local owners.

What more could the NFL want when it makes its decision on awarding two expansion franchises in October? At the instigation of backers of a franchise in Charlotte, N.C., whose financial base is not as strong as Baltimore's, the competing cities are being asked to get cash deposits on luxury boxes and prime seats as evidence of fan support. These pledges would be more than tokens. Some of the luxury boxes cost as much as $105,000 a season, and the cheapest $45,000. Rights to the prime seats on the club level sell for as much as $1,700 each -- plus the ticket price. That adds up to $50 million, with $16 million due right now.

The economic -- and psychological -- value of an NFL team has been demonstrated. There can be no doubt the regular seats, even in a stadium holding 70,000 fans, will sell out. But the real test, in the NFL's eyes, is whether luxury boxes and seats are gobbled up. It's time to put our money where our mouths have been for nine years.

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