Final lap of expansion race could surprise St. Louis may face financial questions

September 26, 1993|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,Staff Writer

The race for an NFL expansion franchise appeared to open up this past week -- possibly to the advantage of Baltimore.

The local effort could benefit at the expense of St. Louis, which with Charlotte had been considered a front-runner.

Representatives of the five finalists made presentations to committees of NFL owners overseeing expansion and finance. Afterward, owners said no city did so well or so poorly to alter the outcome. But privately, a variety of owners and officials involved in expansion said St. Louis faced some tough questioning and left the meetings most shaken.

Conversely, Jacksonville, Fla., which had been rated a long shot, turned in a boffo performance, according to sources, most of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity because of an agreement by owners to limit comments on expansion.

No one can predict with any certainty how the 28 team owners will vote on Oct. 26, when they are scheduled to award the two franchises. But last week's presentations were important. It was the first shot the cities had at the people who will actually pick the winners; previous dealings focused on league staffers.

Baltimore's presentation, highlighted by Gov. William Donald Schaefer, was solid, sources said. However, the consensus is neither of the proposed owners -- Florida-based investor Malcolm Glazer and a group led by retail executive Leonard "Boogie" Weinglass -- advanced his cause in the separate appearances before the committees.

Several owners and officials said they lacked the appeal and national stature of the leaders of the delegations from the other cities.

"Fred Smith everybody knows," said one source, speaking of the Federal Express Co. chairman who led the Memphis delegation. Smith is a minority investor in the Memphis expansion bid led by cotton merchant William B. Dunavant Jr., who is said to also have made a strong impression with a tearful closing argument.

St. Louis lost its major investor, Anheuser-Busch Co. heir James Busch Orthwein, a few weeks ago. He remains a minority investor, but the cut in his investment in the expansion partnership has left new chairman Jerry Clinton scrambling for partners and money.

Attention has focused on John Connelly, a Pittsburgh-based businessman with interests in riverboat casinos, including one proposed for St. Louis. A number of NFL sources say time is running short for St. Louis to stabilize its ownership situation.

"I hear they are struggling and maybe stumbling," said Tony Agnone, a Baltimore-based player agent with connections around the league.

Clinton acknowledged the league has expressed concern about St. Louis' incomplete ownership group and the lack of enthusiasm expressed in the city's failure to sell all the sky boxes and club seats offered in its premium seat campaign. The anemic response seemed to reopen doubts left by the sparse attendance at Cardinals' NFL games before that team left for Phoenix in 1987.

"They did say they were concerned about all these luxury suites being unsold and that it would be better received by the owners if we sold out," Clinton said. "They wonder about the electricity in St. Louis."

Several sources reported a warm reception to Jacksonville's presentation. The city is promising a $120 million renovation of the Gator Bowl.

"I think people were really surprised by how much money was being spent on the stadium," a source said.

Jacksonville also projects being able to pay visiting teams $1.1 million in gate receipts per game during the first season.

Baltimore, with a publicly funded stadium, projects $1.03 million and possibly more in gate receipts if additional club seats are added.

J. Wayne Weaver, the proposed owner of the Jacksonville franchise, is well-liked, sources said. The Connecticut-based Weaver has made a fortune in shoe retailing.

Jacksonville briefly dropped out of the NFL race this summer, but NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue said the league is only concerned with "where they [the cities] are when they cross the finish line."

Charlotte unveiled the details of its financing proposal, which includes $100 million raised from special fees charged season-ticket holders. The concept, new to the NFL, could prove an important revenue source in the future, said Rankin Smith, owner of the Atlanta Falcons.

"It's something all 28 teams may look at someday," he said.

Charlotte failed to raise the full $100 million in a test-marketing of the season tickets this summer, but it brought along guarantees from a pair of Charlotte-based banks -- NationsBank and Wachovia -- that they would buy up any unsold stock.

Included in Charlotte's plan, however, is an intention to divert some ticket revenue that otherwise would go toward a visiting team's share of gate receipts. League rules allow a team to divert some of the revenues from club seats if it is needed for stadium debt, but this generally is done for existing stadiums in financial trouble, not new ones.

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