St. Louis' NFL seats still for sale Sky box drive goes on month past deadline NFL EXPANSION

October 01, 1993|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,Staff Writer

Remember Sept. 3?

That was the absolute, inviolable, non-negotiable deadline facing the five cities trying to lure an NFL expansion team. By that date, they were to stop selling sky boxes and premium seats as part of a league-designed, two-month test marketing campaign.

Baltimore started on the scheduled July 1 kickoff and sold out about a week before the deadline. Charlotte, N.C., geared up weeks in advance, but accepted no checks before July 1 or after the Labor Day weekend. Jacksonville, Fla., and Memphis, Tenn., got late starts, but finished on schedule.

St. Louis? You still can buy a seat there.

The Midwestern city, long considered a front-runner among the expansion hopefuls, and faced with a catastrophic flood at the time of the campaign, is the only one that did not sell out its sky boxes and club seats by the deadline. Near the end of the campaign, St. Louis organizers said they would accept checks until the NFL auditors showed up to look at the books, about a week after the campaign ended.

When the auditors showed up, deposits were not found on about 740 club-seat contracts. And about a dozen sky boxes were still available.

So St. Louis is in the midst of another drive to sell the seats, well after the supposed deadline. Ads are running, a hot line is in place and celebrities are encouraging local fans to save the city's image as a hotbed for sports.

All of which has created some grumbling in competing cities about level playing fields.

But league officials say the contest was fair and the cities will be compared based on their performance during the two months. Although, they note, it will be difficult to ignore a sellout if it comes later.

"The period of time that we analyzed the cities was July 1 to Sept. 3 and we based our report on what the auditors found," said Roger Goodell, NFL director of club administration.

Chief St. Louis investor Jerry Clinton said the city's historic flooding this summer contributed to the shortfall, as did overconfidence on the part of fans who have been told the city was a "lock" for a team. He said the league has been sympathetic to the plight of the community, but suggested a sellout would be timely.

"They did say they are concerned about all the luxury suites that were unsold and that it would be better received by the owners if we sold out," Clinton said.

Meanwhile, Clinton still is scrambling to find an investor to replace James Busch Orthwein, the former head of the effort who dropped back to a minority investor a few weeks ago. Clinton told team owners at meetings last week in Chicago that he was deep in talks with Pittsburgh businessman John E. Connelly.

But those talks apparently have faltered. One NFL source, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said yesterday that Connelly is reluctant to put up a majority of the money while Clinton remains the controlling partner. But the investor is being retained as a final option, if others aren't found, the source said.

Clinton said he is talking with a number of investors, with an eye on spreading the partnership shares, and cash investments, around. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported this week that Clinton is trying to raise $70 million from additional investors -- a significant chunk of money to raise in a little more than three weeks.

The NFL is scheduled to award franchises to two of the five finalist cities at meetings that begin in Chicago on Oct. 26.

"The league has said the sooner you put together a group with the right people the more comfortable they will be," Clinton said.

Moreover, a replacement for Orthwein, whose share of the partnership is now reportedly 12 percent, may have to be found.

Orthwein owns and is trying to sell the New England Patriots. A sale would have to be completed before the expansion team begins putting its organization into shape, over the next year or so, because league rules prohibit owning parts of two teams.

Failing to come up with an ownership group would not necessarily rule out St. Louis.

The league can pick the city and bring in another ownership group -- including those from any losing expansion cities. That's also true in Baltimore, where neither prospective ownership group wowed the owners in Chicago.

Meanwhile, in another expansion development, NFL organizers in Charlotte, N.C., say they are reconsidering a major element of their stadium financing plan in the face of questions from league owners.

Richardson Sports, the group trying to bring a team to the Carolinas, is rethinking its plan to divert club seat revenues, according to consultant Max Muhleman.

The money, which is generally shared with a visiting team along with other ticket receipts, can be retained if being used to finance stadium construction.

The Richardsons are trying to privately finance both the stadium and team and made such a diversion part of their presentation last week. Under their plan, the visiting team share -- $3.2 million a year -- would be diverted for 15 years.

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