In NFL's mapped-out plans, Baltimore just didn't fit

December 05, 1993|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,Staff Writer Staff writer Vito Stellino contributed to this article.

In the end, after the fans had been rallied, millions of dollars spent, and political battles waged over a seven-year struggle, Baltimore's NFL organizers won a single vote of support.

Philadelphia Eagles owner Norman Braman, at a closed-door meeting Tuesday in a suburban Chicago hotel, exhorted his 27 fellow team owners to consider the history of Baltimore, its renaissance, and its contribution to the NFL.

When he sat down and the voting was conducted, a proposal awarding the league's 30th franchise to Jacksonville, Fla., was passed, 26-2. Opposing were Mr. Braman and a team owner favoring St. Louis. The month before, when Charlotte, N.C., got the first expansion franchise, the vote was unanimous.

It was a bitter loss for one of Baltimore's most intense municipal efforts, and the decision has sparked no shortage of recrimination and self-examination in a community that devoted a large part of its heart, soul and money to return to the NFL.

Was the strategy flawed? Did the commissioner have it in for Baltimore? Was there anything that could have been done to change the outcome?

Interviews with team owners, league officials and others involved in the process indicate that Baltimore's effort may have suffered from a few missteps along the way. Backing a single potential franchise owner sooner would have helped. And the bickering in the last month, with its underlying threat of litigation, didn't help, either.

But the fatal factor was there all along: The NFL, with five teams within a five-hour drive of Baltimore, views this market as already served by pro football.

That point was vividly demonstrated at Tuesday's meeting and one last month, where a map of the United States was projected on a screen. Wide circles were drawn around cities with NFL teams, and around the cities seeking one.

Baltimore's circle overlapped the Redskins to the south and Eagles to the north.

"We saw a problem with putting an expansion franchise right there within a very, very concentrated area when there were portions of the country that, according to the demographics we saw and the growth patterns we saw, cried out for the presence of an NFL franchise far more than the Baltimore area," said Carmen Policy, president of the San Francisco 49ers and a member of the joint committee that recommended Charlotte and Jacksonville.

Kansas City Chiefs owner and committee member Lamar Hunt said what picking Baltimore would have meant, "We would be going to an area that already has a high concentration of teams.

"The decision you have to make is whether to broaden the game up to different areas in expansion or concentrate on where the most people are," Mr. Hunt said.

Baltimore hasn't gotten any closer to Washington since March 1992, when it was included on a list of five finalist cities, along with the eventual winners and Memphis, Tenn., and St. Louis. It ** raises another question: Why did the NFL keep Baltimore in the running, letting it spend money and raise the hopes of fans?

Total spending on the effort by potential owners and community organizers probably exceeds $3 million, most of it privately donated.

The cynical view is that Baltimore, with its aggressive financial package, was raising the ante among the other contestants. Charlotte and Jacksonville enhanced their deals in the final months before winning franchises. The 2-year-old offer by Baltimore added up to one of the sweetest deals in sports.

A combination of a publicly financed stadium and a lucrative lease would make a Baltimore franchise one of the most profitable in sports within a few years, and would pay more than $1 million to each team that came here to play.

Commissioner's choice?

Team owners and officials insist the process was a fair and objective consideration of the facts, a simple search for the cities that could add the most to the league. Local organizers, %J including Gov. William Donald Schaefer, say otherwise, that the game was skewed against Baltimore from the kickoff.

"You can't fight the commissioner," said Mr. Schaefer, alleging that NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue opposed Baltimore's application.

In fact, team owners say Mr. Tagliabue did steer the recommendations and eventual vote. The preponderance of demographic data was assembled to guide the new teams into two so-called "virgin" territories of the fast-growing Southeast. The concentration around Baltimore, and the potential infringement on the Redskins -- who, it was noted, may have to consider Maryland sites for their new stadium -- was relayed to the owners.

In fact, late last week, Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke was reported to be considering moving the Redskins to a 78,600-seat stadium on a tract near Laurel Racecourse.

"They said it was one of the factors we should consider," Mr. Hunt said of the NFL congestion in the Northeast.

Chuck Schmidt, CEO of the Detroit Lions, described Mr. Tagliabue as the "orchestra leader" of expansion.

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