Baltimore vs. St. Louis: Look-alikes look for edge

November 28, 1993|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,Staff Writer

In this corner: an aging, industrial river city trying to reclaim its lost football heritage. And the challenger: an aging, industrial river city trying to reclaim its lost football heritage.

If only NFL games were this exciting.

The two cities given the best chance of winning the league's next expansion team -- Baltimore and St. Louis -- are so evenly matched that it's hard to tell them apart. They are virtually the same size, have much the same checkered sports history and each boasts a revitalized waterfront.

St. Louis has Stan Musial and Tennessee Williams. Baltimore has Babe Ruth and H. L. Mencken. Tourists flock to the Gateway Arch, and wonder what the Shot Tower is all about. The National League Cardinals always make a respectable run for the championship, but have come up short in recent years. Ditto the American League Orioles.

"You're looking at two cities that, from a media standpoint, are pretty much neck and neck," said Bob Warrens, corporate media research director for J. Walter Thompson, one of the nation's largest advertising agencies.

Even Places Rated Almanac, the self-appointed arbiter of livability, had a hard time telling them apart. It ranked Baltimore 21 and St. Louis 22.

NFL owners will meet Tuesday near Chicago to try to find a difference. The owners gave one franchise Oct. 26 to Charlotte, N.C., leaving four cities to fight over the second: Baltimore, St. Louis, Jacksonville, Fla., and Memphis, Tenn.

Even the prospective owner in Memphis now says his city, which failed to come up with a new stadium for the team, is not "in the thick of things."

Jacksonville is everyone's favorite long shot, but it's still a small city with an old stadium in a state with two other teams.

That, in the eyes of many, leaves the race a two-way struggle between Baltimore and St. Louis, two aging, industrial river cities . . . well, you know.

Too close to call?

St. Louis was the odds-on favorite of the two until a new prospective owner, Alfred Lerner, emerged in Baltimore, shaking the prognosticators. Most still give St. Louis an edge, but at least the race may be a little closer that it would otherwise be.

"I still hear, 'St. Louis, St. Louis, St. Louis, provided they have their act together,' " said Robert Wussler, former head of CBS and CBS Sports who is now a media consultant with contacts within the league.

St. Louis has been considered a front-runner since the expansion race began. And the league's presumed preference for the Midwestern city was reinforced last month when the NFL defered awarding the second team.

St. Louis was the most obvious beneficiary of the delay: It had assembled a new ownership group only the day before, and the league hadn't had time to perform the necessary background checks.

"We didn't think it would be fair" to compare the cities with one in such disorder, said Robert Tisch, co-owner of the New York Giants and a member of the joint expansion and finance committee overseeing the process.

The ensuing month has seen St. Louis' group undergo a few minor changes, but the paperwork has been filed and matters appear to be settled.

"All five cities had support, they really did," said Kansas City Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt, another member of the finance and expansion joint committee. "Obviously they are not all the same. Some have better TV packages; some have better owners. They are all different."

The two bids

To E. Stanley Kroenke, head of St. Louis' new investment group, the appeal of his city boils down to several factors: the largest TV market without a team, a stadium under construction and a central-time zone location that can be easily transplanted into almost any conference realignment configuration.

"Other cities are talking about building a stadium; we are already doing it. . . . St. Louis is the best market for the NFL," said Mr. Kroenke, a Columbia, Mo.-based developer.

But NFL sources say the league has some concerns with St. Louis, including questions about fan support in a city that never really rallied around the NFL Cardinals when they were in town. The team moved to Phoenix in 1987.

St. Louis, say the critics, is a baseball town.

Compounding those doubts was the failure of the city to sell all its sky boxes and club seats during last summer's test marketing, and the difficulty it had getting an ownership group together.

Mr. Kroenke is the fourth person to claim the lead of the city's franchise ownership group in the past two months, and he emerged only after an embarrassing search for a local investor.

As has been the case throughout expansion, Baltimore is seen as a beneficiary of St. Louis' troubles. It is the next biggest TV market without an NFL team, and is an "old market" for owners who have expressed interest in returning a team to a market the league had abandoned.

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