NFL hopefuls mark those seats SOLD! No city has an edge as ticket drives end

September 04, 1993|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,Staff Writer

It took a lot of time and a lot of money. But after two grueling months of test-marketing sky boxes and luxury seats, none of the cities seeking to join the NFL seemed to have edged out any competitors.

"In the final analysis everyone did well. I don't think anybody really got hurt by this. If anybody was really short it could have hurt," said Ernie Accorsi, a former NFL official working as a consultant for Baltimore's bid.

There were some nervous moments in two of the cities -- Memphis, Tenn., and Jacksonville, Fla. -- when it appeared they might drop out of the running altogether. But in the end, Memphis stayed the course and Jacksonville appears likely to.

But the other cities, Baltimore, St. Louis and Charlotte, N.C., either managed a sellout or came close enough to stay in the race. The NFL plans to award expansion franchises to two of the five finalists late next month, with the teams taking the field in 1995.

NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said, "It appears that all the cities did pretty well."

The league designed the two-month marketing campaign as a way to test fan interest. The drive began July 1 and ended yesterday. Officials say the results will be only one of many factors they will consider when deciding where to locate the two teams.

"We won't know until we analyze the numbers," said Norman Braman, owner of the Philadelphia Eagles and a member of the committee of NFL owners overseeing expansion. "Every city that is in this is a really worthy city."

Baltimore, a city that still bears the stigma of losing interest in the Colts during their final seasons, sold out all of its sky boxes and club seats more than a week before the deadline.

"It was important here because we went through years of great success with [Colts] attendance and then we had a few years of less success. I think this goes a long way toward erasing that," said Accorsi, who was a general manager with the Colts when they were in Baltimore.

Baltimore fans put down more than $8 million in deposits on 100 sky boxes and 7,500 club seats, a special, mezzanine-level of extra-wide seats with access to exclusive lounges and concessions. More than 85 percent of the leases are for the maximum seven years. The deposits, equal to half the first year's rent, represent commitments of more than $100 million.

"I think Baltimore was a standout. They were not a fan of premium seat sales but when it came time to getting it done they got it done well," said Tony Agnone, a locally based NFL agent who has followed expansion closely.

St. Louis may have been the biggest surprise. Long perceived to be a leading candidate for a team, based in part on its preponderance of corporate headquarters, St. Louis sold only 86 of its 100 sky boxes, priced at $51,500 to $121,000, but organizers there did manage a last-minute sellout of their 6,550 club seats, priced at $700 to $2,200.

"We're within striking distance of selling them [sky boxes] out. We needed some extra time due to the distractions of the flooding," said St. Louis NFL investor Jerry Clinton. The city was hit by record Mississippi River flooding in the midst of its premium seat campaign.

League officials say they will be understanding of the circumstances in St. Louis, but critics have also blamed a lackluster promotional effort there for the slow sales.

Charlotte came into the project with the most to gain and posted the best performance, although it didn't reach all of its goals. Investors for the Carolina team were also conducting a parallel drive to market rights to buy 62,000 season tickets. Proceeds from the seat rights, which averaged $2,500 each, are to be used to finance stadium construction.

Organizers claimed a sellout of 102 sky boxes, priced at $40,000 to $296,000, and 8,314 club seats, for $975 to $$2,975, within days of the commencement of the campaign, but many of the commitments were informal. The numbers they reported to league auditors were less spectacular, but showed a brisk sales pace.

The seat licenses fell well short of the hoped-for sellout. But organizers say they sold enough, about 49,000 of the 62,000 offered, to prove their financing scheme can work.

"We're delighted with the results. We think the response has been overwhelming," said Max Muhleman, a consultant with the Charlotte bid.

For Memphis and Jacksonville, the campaigns became a moment of truth. Both cities ended up hinging their continued bid on a successful sales drive.

When the campaign began July 1, NFL investors in Jacksonville were still wrangling with the city council over who would pay for renovations of the aging Gator Bowl. Premium seat sales ended July 21 when the negotiations broke down and the city dropped out of the NFL race. Deposits were returned to fans.

Ten days ago, the investment group agreed to continue seeking a team if 9,000 of the 10,000 club seats, priced at $1,500 each, could be sold by yesterday. Sky boxes were priced at $45,000 to $75,000.

"It's been a real community effort," said David Clavier, a spokesman for the group. Final results were still being compiled, but 9,737 seats had been sold as of late last night, seemingly guaranteeing the goal would be met.

Memphis sat out the first three weeks of the campaign while prospective team owner and cotton merchant William Dunavent sought additional investors to help cover the league's higher than expected franchise fee. His group announced a resumption on July 28, and last Wednesday sold the last of the 100 sky boxes and 8,302 club seats it is proposing for a renovated Liberty Bowl.

"I think it's doggone great to see we sold more than St. Louis and Baltimore," Steve Ehrhart, a Dunavent associate, told the Memphis Commercial-Appeal.

Memphis sky boxes sold for $50,000 and $60,000, depending upon location, and club seats went for $1,000 to $1,500.

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