O's price is rich in meaning for NFL

JOHN EISENBERG

August 06, 1993|By JOHN EISENBERG

We begin today with an unusual request: Pretend you're an NFL owner. (Ordinarily this would require a large pinky ring, a copy of "Barbarians at the Gate" and the ability to growl, "Does this thing have any Scotch in it or what?" But we're just pretending, so don't sweat it.)

OK, you're an owner. You're rich. But not rich enough. Never rich enough. So, let's say it's last Tuesday and, as always, you wake up and excitedly grab the sports section. Actually, as always, you excitedly grab the business section to see if anyone you know declared Chapter 11. Then you grab the sports, and there it is: The Orioles selling for $173 million.

How do you feel? Depressed? Maybe, but only because you aren't the one getting the $173 million. (Incidentally, to those readers pretending they're Bob Irsay: Good news. You just won an all-expenses-paid trip to Jurassic Park. We're paying.)

No, you're not depressed at all. Angry? Get serious. You're thrilled. In fact, you're so thrilled about the $173 million solution that, just for grins, you might take a day off from threatening to leave town unless the city council builds you a new stadium.

Because you're rich, but you sure enough just got richer.

The $173 million tag only increases the value of your franchise, as it did all big-time franchises. There's no proving it, but it's a fact that franchise prices rise inexorably, and it certainly helps to push the ceiling far higher than it had been.

So, if you're a typical, profit-loving, pinky-ring-wearing NFL owner, what are you liable to think about the city where this happy deal went down? Are you liable to think, "Forget those clueless dunces in Baltimore"? Or are you liable to think, "Wow. I want a piece of that apple pie."

You'll go for the pie, right?

It's relevant because in October the NFL is scheduled to announce the two winners of its expansion derby, in which Baltimore is a contender along with St. Louis and Charlotte. Opinions abound about which cities are favored and what criteria will be used, but there can be no denying that Baltimore's financial credentials can't be topped. The Orioles' sale is just the latest evidence.

Let's review the basic facts here. The price of the Orioles rose $100 million in five years primarily because of their sky-boxed, club-leveled, premium-seated revenue monster of a new ballpark. And the same people who built Camden Yards would build a new, sky-boxed, club-leveled, premium-seated football stadium.

There are, then, many reasons to expect a local NFL team to become profitable in the fashion of the Orioles, which would drive up the franchise price, which would drive up the whole market, which would, well, don't you get it?

Not that long ago, if you recall, there was this perception that Baltimore was a semi-dead sports town, a city to leave, a little brother squashed into oblivion between Washington and Philadelphia. Remember the question one NFL executive asked Tom Clancy just last year: Why do we need a team in Baltimore? (Clancy's droll response was a true classic: "Because there's a city there.")

Well, that semi-dead stuff is ancient history now, and anyone not aware of that just hasn't been paying attention. If ever there was proof that Baltimore is a major-league town, particularly economically, the $173 million solution was it.

St. Louis is a virtual lock for one team for NFL political reasons. And Charlotte is a huge, untapped market that would support a new franchise. But the people angling for a team in Charlotte can only offer promises.

Promises that the advance sale of premium seats and sky boxes can raise most of the money for a stadium.

Promises that the rest of the money for a stadium can be found somewhere, under a rock or wherever.

Promises that they can build a first-class, revenue-monster stadium.

Baltimore is offering public funding for every cent of the stadium price.

Baltimore is offering Camden Yards, only the jewel of American stadiums, as a track record for its ability to build a first-class revenue monster.

Baltimore is offering the Orioles, and the $173 million solution, as evidence of what it can do for a franchise's value.

Now, that doesn't mean that the owners won't end up picking Charlotte. We don't know what their criteria for choosing cities will be. Maybe they don't like crab cakes, and that'll be that.

But one would guess that the owners, given a choice between promises and a sure thing, would, like anyone else, prefer the latter. And after the $173 million solution, Baltimore represents exactly that to the NFL: a sure thing.

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