Expansion process: flawed and fraud

JOHN EISENBERG

October 28, 1993|By JOHN EISENBERG

Let's say, for the sake of argument (and also because it's going to happen), that St. Louis is awarded the NFL's other expansion franchise next month. Did the 28 league owners benefit from having Baltimore in the fight?

Are you kidding? If we never play a game, we still padded their savings accounts. Considerably.

Visiting teams receive around $500,000 a game right now. We upped the ante to $1 million, stunning the other expansion finalists, who had to meet or top our offer. The Glazers took it up another notch to $1.5 million in their Tuesday pitch to the owners. Up and up it goes. And who gets this money? Bob Irsay, Bill Bidwill and the rest of the boys. Beautiful, huh?

The old part of Baltimore's NFL legacy is Unitas, Donovan, overtime, sellouts. The new part is this: getting used and helping make some rich, arrogant people even richer and more arrogant.

You say that's not what you had in mind when you got excited about Baltimore getting the ball? Well, you just learned the cold, hard lesson about expansion, Tagliabue style. No matter which cities get new teams -- and the privilege of watching a decade of bad football -- the owners are the winners.

It wasn't always like this. From 1960 to 1977, the league added 16 teams through expansion and the merger with the AFL. The balance of supply and demand was just about perfect. On those occasions when the league chose to expand, a couple of candidates emerged and, after a bit of bickering, got their wish.

The last round of expansion was 17 years ago, though. The demand for teams had far surpassed the supply. So, the owners and commissioner Paul Tagliabue came up with a truly vicious expansion plan that preyed coldly on the desires of cities wanting teams.

It was a cynical, unethical blackmail job set up strictly for the owners to make more money. Here's hoping they get sued.

It appears now that the deciding criteria were geography and television demographics, which means, as feared here, that the league intended all along to put teams in Charlotte and St. Louis. But instead of just asking those cities to put together stadium and ownership plans, the league created a false bidding war with Baltimore, Memphis and Jacksonville.

Now, it's axiomatic that competition creates a better product, but we're talking about people here, not neckties. And a trumped-up competition with preordained winners is nothing other than fraud with cheerleaders in the background. But the owners made out very nicely, thank you. Let us count the ways.

For starters, there is the $200,000 in nonrefundable deposits from the three losing cities. Why do the owners get to keep that money? Because they said so.

But the real windfall will come from the economic gyrations the Charlotte owners went through to make sure they got their team. They came up with the idea of permanent seat licenses, creating a new, fan-unfriendly revenue stream that the owners will use. That's millions right there. Then, last week, paranoid at the end of the trumped-up bidding war, the Charlotte people forked over $15 million they had earmarked for debt service. That goes straight to the owners. Getting the picture?

Stripped naked financially, Charlotte won't turn a profit for years. The money for decent players will have to come from NationsBank, whose depositors surely will be thrilled. Great arrangement, huh? Here's hoping they choke on their debt.

Meanwhile, the owners made a mockery of the expansion process. They set deadlines and didn't meet them. They established guidelines that were rendered irrelevant. St. Louis didn't have its act together on E-Day, so the owners just bought more time.

Yes, it's their league and they can do what they want. And there are some decent, well-intentioned people among them. But collectively they're reprehensible.

The people in good football cities such as Baltimore and Jacksonville were absolutely abused. They went to all sorts of trouble and expense to sell sky boxes and club seats, and it was just a hoax. The owners only wanted to keep the pressure on Charlotte to come up with the best deal. And they did. (See: the $15 million they turned over in the end.)

This isn't just sour grapes, either. I'm saying the same thing if we somehow wind up with the team on Nov. 30. This deal stunk so bad it belonged in kitty litter.

If we don't get the team, hopefully we'll just turn to Plan B now and find an existing team, several of which are interested. It still would be fun to have a team. But after this off-putting expansion experience, it's kind of hard to get excited, isn't it?

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