Fourth and Long for the NFL

December 10, 1993|By ANDREW CIOFALO

When the National Football League announced its expansion into Hee-Haw country it was met with a big ho-hum by the ad moguls of Madison Avenue. It was clear that the NFL had not put up enough potential ratings numbers on the board to send the admen scrambling to reconfigure their ad dollars. The TV networks also prepared to ratchet down the value of the TV package without the mega markets of Baltimore and St. Louis.

Residents of both cities are learning what New Yorkers have known for a long time: Professional sports leagues are big business. With corporate types, such as Paul Tagliabue, at the helm, team owners absorbed in the complexities of running a modern franchise have handed off their responsibilities to the lawyers and accountants from corporate central. This approach didn't work for General Motors and U.S. Steel, the flagship companies of America's industrial decline. It's what landed junk-bond kings and fast-track bankers on the disabled list.

When I moved to Baltimore in 1983, I found the whole town and its sports media exercised over Bob Irsay, owner of the fabled Baltimore Colts. All he wanted was some renovation to old Memorial Stadium and some revenue-enhancing sky boxes. But the thought of Mr. Irsay and his out-of-town friends cavorting in luxury high above the football fray irked then-mayor now-governor William Donald Schaefer.

New York City officials were similarly irked when Walter O'Malley demanded a new stadium in Brooklyn over the Atlantic Avenue railroad yards and terminal, a transportation hub that would have given the Dodgers easy access to the growing Long Island suburbs. Denied, he persuaded Horace Stoneham and the Giants to join him in the trek west.

I never understood that move until I perused the box score of the greatest baseball game ever played, the 1951 Giant-Dodger playoff and Bobby Thomson's ninth-inning home run. I noted with amazement an attendance of slightly more than 20,000. The Polo Grounds could hold 60,000.

The Colts had been playing to more and more empty seats with each game. Having no fan interest in the Colts, this New Yorker saw the move as an economic fact of life. The slinking away in the night I attributed to a rather mean-spirited attitude on the part of public officials toward the team owner.

That attitude wasn't lost on the NFL in the decision to pass up Baltimore, the obvious choice in terms of demographics, tradition, TV market and urban renaissance, in favor of Jacksonville. The town could have understood losing to St. Louis, a city of near equal credentials.

Baltimore was blind-sided by a corporate culture it never understood. The town's faith that all the numbers and stats would be laid out on a level playing field was misguided. Loyalty, emotion, charisma and tradition -- important as they are to sport -- are of no value in a corporate system that has no basis for factoring in ethical choices.

Maryland's lugubrious governor, who already had let one team slip away, quickly announced he was in the hunt to get a current NFL team to move to Baltimore, something he once said he would never do. Baltimore should think twice before becoming a corporate raider in an industry built upon deception.

Tagliabue's use and abuse of his board (the owners) and his stockholders (the season-ticket holders) will eventually be his personal undoing. The league's days are numbered, both as an independent entity and a viable economic structure.

Federal regulation of professional sports is long overdue. The process has already begun under the aegis of federal courts on such issues as free agency and collective bargaining. And Maryland's, Missouri's and Tennessee's congressional delegations could retore some dignity to their citizens by becoming prime movers in legislating a Federal Sports Authority to regulate the interstate sports business. Someone has to protect the public investment represented by taxpayer support of sweetheart stadium leases and give-away concession rights. The IRS should at least force teams to declare the true value of below-market rentals and services as income.

Baltimore eventually will have its team simply because it sits in the northeast where the big media numbers are. The fragmentation of the TV market and the decline of national TV networks makes the NFL's national spread formation as chancey as the Hail Mary pass it signals.

Eventually the big east teams will get tired of supporting franchises in the less lucrative markets. Regionalization will come to professional football just as it came to NCAA football when the big-time programs and conferences decided to realize their full economic potential.

It isn't so far-fetched that the eastern NFL teams could break away and form a media powerhouse that would include franchises like Baltimore, Toronto, Montreal, Richmond, Long Island and Connecticut. This region harbors the oldest rivalries in sport and the most rabid fan base. Ted Turner or the Fox Network are likely bankrollers for such a venture.

Market forces are likely to break up the NFL into more viable regional entities with a greater variety of group and individual media deals. And when that happens, Baltimore, St. Louis and Memphis will have their teams. And so will a lot of other deserving locales.

The NFL has but one choice: punt.

Mr. Ciofalo teaches journalism at Loyola College in Baltimore.

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