Charlotte rumors ignore bottom line

JOHN EISENBERG

July 18, 1993|By JOHN EISENBERG

I go on a New York talk show before the All-Star Game. They want to talk about Baltimore. The ballpark. Cal and Gehrig and the streak. The baseball monster.

The conversation turns to NFL expansion. "We hear Charlotte," they say. "Charlotte and St. Louis."

The week before, a writer friend calls from halfway across the country. "In the paper down here," he says, "it's like it's a done deal. Charlotte and St. Louis."

Sounds bad, worse than bad. But don't start crying. Please. It's just the churning of the NFL rumor mill. A mill trafficking in talk, not evidence. A mill that, remember, had the Cardinals moving here.

It doesn't mean a thing, any of it. But it does plant a seed of wonder: Could it be true that the NFL is falling for the virgin market Charlotte represents?

The issue comes up because of the concept floating around town that the All-Star Game was a perfect pitch for football. Which it was, of course. The show was nothing if not a big, brilliant commercial for the major-league environment we can offer.

But does it help our chances? I don't see it.

Please understand. Obviously, such a show doesn't hurt. But as far as helping, we long ago crossed the point beyond which we needed help. We don't need any. We can't do any more. We have a perfect bid. It can't get any more attractive.

We have public funding in place for a new stadium. Two stable, big-money ownership groups from which to choose. A baseball park that shows what we can do with a stadium. On and on it goes.

Right now we're into selling these club seats and luxury boxes. Or is it club boxes and luxury seats? Whatever. They'll boom. It'll all go well. Bank on it. Our people in charge, they know the drill. They know what they're doing. They'll sell the tomfool out of those things.

We can give whatever the NFL wants. Do whatever the NFL asks. Stand on our heads. Walk on fire rocks. But does it matter? Does the fabulous All-Star show or the selling of the luxury club box seats or anything else matter if the rumor mill is right this time and Charlotte is zeroing in on a franchise?

No. Obviously, nothing else would matter if that is the case. That would mean the NFL has decided that it wants to break ground in a new region, that geography will be the deciding factor.

It's a tidy little theory. Makes sense. Sure, the league wants to spread to a new market. What business wouldn't?

But there's one problem. The theory violates Rule No. 1 of NFL ownership: Thou shalt always go for the money.

Charlotte is the hot rumor right now because they've made a big racket selling seat premiums, which would help pay for a new stadium and solve the stadium-funding crisis that was undermining their bid. But even if they sell out, which they will, they won't be able to match Baltimore.

Look at the math. The Charlotte seat premiums figure to raise about $100 million. A new stadium will cost about $160 million. That means Jerry Richardson's ownership group will still have to raise some $60 million over the franchise price.

That means they'll still be scrambling. And the NFL is terrified of franchises with anything less than rock-solid finances. Why? Just look at the Patriots.

Here, all that's needed to build a new stadium is the word. The go-ahead to plant the shovels. And the stadium would be a money-making sucker, too, you can bet on that. The Orioles' operating profit increased dramatically from Memorial Stadium to Camden Yards. Visiting teams at a new football stadium could count on something like a million bucks a game.

That will interest the NFL owners a lot more than a bright, shining All-Star Game.

That's why the members of the various Baltimore expansion parties have remained so confident, almost to the point of smugness, in spite of the rumblings of the rumor mill. They've gotten to know the NFL. They know what the league wants. And they know they've got it.

"All they care about," said one member of one expansion party, "is money."

Sure, there's always the chance that the NFL will use a different criteria this time. The lure of a new territory is certainly strong. The absence of that is the only debit on Baltimore's ledger.

But in the end, it's going to come down to this: The league is going to have to decide if it wants to take the most money and go to Baltimore, or take less money and try on a new hat in Charlotte.

The rumor mill would have you believe the NFL is willing to take less money.

Don't believe it.

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