Old or not, Baltimore and St. Louis deserve teams

JOHN EISENBERG

October 26, 1993|By JOHN EISENBERG

ROSEMONT, Ill. -- On the morning of the day when the deal finally comes down, let's start with an important point: Baltimore deserves one of the two expansion teams the NFL is awarding today.

Baltimore and St. Louis.

No, not for sentimental reasons. No, not because the fans in those cities got jobbed.

Because those are the cities with the best bids.

Go ahead and call that homerism, but it's not. Baltimore and St. Louis are the only cities with publicly funded stadiums. They are the two largest TV markets without teams. Baltimore has the glittering precedent of Camden Yards, a sweet money deal, solid ownership groups. St. Louis has a dome already going up.

The other candidates can't match that. Charlotte's bid is enormously, frighteningly leveraged. Memphis and Jacksonville are smaller TV markets with old stadiums. It's not even a tough call. If there were no names on these bids, just five packages for the owners to mull, this thing would take five minutes. Everyone could be home in time for dinner.

Why, it wouldn't even matter that St. Louis is having last-minute ownership problems. The fact is, ownership might not be that critical. If it was, Memphis, with Fred Smith of Federal Express, would get a team. The league favors Smith over any other prospective expansion owner. But Memphis isn't getting a team. Owners come and go; cities and stadiums don't. What's more important is the infrastructure. The stadium, the money, the city.

And what's more important, perhaps most important, unfortunately, is the maddening political wind of the NFL.

You see, Baltimore and St. Louis deserve teams -- if the decision gets made in a vacuum. And it isn't, of course. The NFL is no different from any other business operation. It has a political nature, a multitude of factions with different agendas, beliefs and quirks. And that's where this thing starts to get murky.

The bids lead us to an easy, tidy, favorable conclusion. But the bids might not matter. Alas, that is true.

Listen, no one ever said this was going to be fair. From the beginning, the whisper from the league office was that it wanted at least one "new" city. Well, there goes fairness right there. Instead of one race for two teams, that's two races for one team. Old against old, new against new. And if two olds have the best bids (but one new is guaranteed a team), well, someone's going to be screaming foul.

Now, before you start screaming, please recognize that the league isn't wrong to want a new city, a fresh market. It's not

some vague, conspiratorial prejudice against the old guard. It's just basic business sense. If you're not growing, you're shrinking. Can't argue with that -- as long as the growth is sensible, not just growth for growth's sake.

That brings us to Charlotte. At rumor central, the lobby of the Hyatt Regency O'Hare, the word you heard most often yesterday was that Charlotte was the one lock. It is the largest and most promising of the new cities and, so went the word, a rubber-stamp away from a franchise.

Now, you don't have to believe that. There are plenty of reasons not to go to Charlotte. Ownership will have to borrow heavily to finance a franchise and stadium, which means the bank is going to be a major player. The league doesn't like that. The league likes independent owners.

If the owners are smart at all, they'll look hard at the Charlotte deal. Fans are going to pay hundreds of dollars for tickets, and, as the bust of the Cardinals in Phoenix demonstrates, people are loath to empty their wallets for bad football. It's an iffy deal, much more so than Baltimore's. But will that matter?

If it doesn't, Baltimore and St. Louis, the two best bids, wind up in competition for a team. And even though St. Louis is struggling to find an owner, it's impossible to handicap a race when both cities deserve to win. The Patriots and James Busch Orthwein also could be involved. There are enough conspiracy theories floating around for five Ollie Stone movies. Anyone who says they know what'll happen is trafficking in fiction.

Anyway, there you have it: Reasons why we'll get the ball. And reasons why we won't. Pretty unclear, huh? Sorry. But hey, we knew all along that the most important item in this whole process would be the one we'd never know: The final criteria for picking the teams. Stadiums? Geography? Owners? Sentiment? Money?

Ah, well. We did our best. We did everything the league asked. We had the best bid. We deserve a team. If we win one, let's party. If we don't, it was a bum deal. What can you do? At least the whole stupid, vague business will be over soon. Enough already.

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