NFL's final choice: old cities, new looks

November 30, 1993|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,Staff Writer Staff writers Peter Jensen and Sandy Banisky contributed to this article.

ROSEMONT, Ill. -- The owners of the 28 National Football League teams will try today to finish the business they started last month, completing the league's first expansion in nearly 20 years, but they will find themselves weighing new factors and questions.

Their choices remain Baltimore, St. Louis, Jacksonville, Fla., and Memphis, Tenn. But the look of some of the contestants is different from Oct. 26, when the league added the Carolina Panthers and deferred until today naming the second city.

"It's wide-open, it really is," said Philadelphia Eagles owner Norman Braman.

St. Louis appears to have stabilized a confused ownership situation that had threatened to sink its efforts. But there were still frantic efforts at the 11th hour to try to cement a lease for the city's new football stadium.

Memphis made some cosmetic changes in its package, but now even its backers see little chance for success. Jacksonville, which once dropped out of the race, comes to the meeting with no changes and hopes that stability will count in its favor.

Baltimore produced the most radical change, a strategy that effectively shunted aside two prospective team owners in favor of a newcomer with deep pockets and NFL connections.

Whether Alfred Lerner, a Cleveland-based businessman who once headed Baltimore's biggest banking company, MNC Financial, can deliver a team in exchange for Gov. William Donald Schaefer's endorsement will be the question of the day here.

The answer could come any time after 2 p.m. Baltimore time. The 12 members of the Finance and Expansion committees are scheduled to convene at 9:30 a.m. to formulate a recommendation.

The committees then will present their pick to all 28 team owners at a meeting scheduled to begin at 2 p.m. The league's newest member, the Carolina Panthers, will not be represented and will not vote.

One NFL source involved in expansion said: "I don't think there is a groundswell of support for any of the cities."

Both expansion franchises will begin play in 1995.

Mr. Lerner, who never publicly has commented on his NFL application, was not scheduled to appear before the committees, as other potential owners have done. But he has been told to be on hand in case committee members have questions.

"I think there's a pretty strong chance he'll be summoned," said NFL spokesman Greg Aiello.

Mr. Lerner owns 5 percent of the Cleveland Browns and is a close friend of Browns owner Art Modell, a member of the Expansion Committee. Mr. Lerner is otherwise not widely known within the league, but Mr. Modell's support could add passion to the support Baltimore already enjoys within the league.

"We're going on the perception we're going to win. Mr. Lerner brings something to us. Without Mr. Lerner, we wouldn't have had a fighting chance," Mr. Schaefer said.

Baltimore's case is strong. It is second only to St. Louis in size among U.S. cities without the NFL, it has public funding for a stadium near Camden Yards and its Orioles support is a sports phenomenon.

Mr. Schaefer is leading the same delegation that was here a month ago waiting for an answer: Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, Maryland Stadium Authority chairman Herbert J. Belgrad, Rouse Co. chairman Mathias J. DeVito, adviser Ernie Accorsi and stadium authority executive director Bruce Hoffman.

The group flew here last night aboard a chartered plane. Unlike last month, none of its members is expected to be called upon to deliver presentations to team owners.

The prospective Baltimore team owners Mr. Schaefer overlooked also will be here, although their chances appear to have dimmed with the governor's endorsement of Mr. Lerner.

Leonard "Boogie" Weinglass, who heads a group that includes moviemaker Barry Levinson and Crown Central Petroleum chairman Henry Rosenberg, said: "I think Baltimore is going to get a team."

Mr. Weinglass and Florida-based financier Malcolm Glazer had been rivals for a team for more than two years, working alongside the community group trying to get a team.

Front-running St. Louis is the city many believe caused the one-month delay in awarding the 30th franchise.

In the ensuing month, St. Louis largely has settled its ownership situation. Columbia, Mo.-based developer E. Stanley Kroenke, who filed an application the day before the Oct. 26 owners meetings, has passed the league's background checks.

His group has undergone some changes, such as the elimination of a member with connections to casino gambling and the addition of others. Mr. Kroenke also has hinted that Hall of Fame running back Walter Payton is poised to join the group.

There were unresolved questions on the lease the team would have at the city's new stadium, but it wasn't clear how significant they are. The Kroenke group offered former ownership group head Jerry Clinton, who controls more than 30 percent of the lease, $3 million and 5 percent of the team last week, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Mr. Clinton countered with a demand for $3 million and 15 percent of the team. Talks were ongoing late yesterday.

The St. Louis and Baltimore changes have left Jacksonville -- which one writer called the "Ross Perot of expansion" for its off-and-on candidacy -- as a pillar of stability.

The city's prospective ownership group, led by shoe magnate J. Wayne Weaver, dropped out of the running this summer and flirted with doing it again a few weeks ago.

Jacksonville is the 54th-largest TV market, and its stadium is old.

Memphis' planners have been glum in their assessments. A few weeks ago, head investor and cotton merchant William B. Dunavant Jr. threatened to pull out of the race unless he received some encouragement from the league.

The encouragement never materialized, he said last week. But he stayed in the race, sending each team owner a letter outlining the city's appeal.

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