City carries hope into 2nd half of NFL countdown

January 14, 1994|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,Staff Writer

Gov. William Donald Schaefer's negotiated deadline for procuring an NFL team is half over, and, despite some tantalizing expressions of interest, there is still no commitment from a team to move to Baltimore.

Supporters say they have made progress, and that Baltimore's hopes for returning to the league are very much alive. Timing will be the key, however, as lawmakers, who met yesterday to consider the issue in committee, threaten to cut off funding for the effort.

"I don't want to raise optimism prematurely, but clearly there are discussions going on with more than one club and potential ownership group, and I am pleased with where I am," said Herbert J. Belgrad, chairman of the Maryland Stadium Authority.

He declined to name the teams involved, but other sources say the city or private investors on behalf of the city have had direct or indirect communication with three teams, the Los Angeles Rams, New England Patriots and Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

But in no case is a team calling the moving vans, and there are plenty of skeptics who say the odds are against an NFL team here for lots of reasons. Since 1970, three NFL teams have relocated, compared with two major-league baseball teams, six hockey teams and nine basketball franchises. *

"I know the league generally frowns on teams leaving their home markets. It creates instability," said Atlanta Falcons owner Rankin Smith.

But, he notes, the league has not had much luck preventing moves. The Raiders, for example, defied a vote of team owners and moved to Los Angeles in 1982. Owner Al Davis won an antitrust lawsuit against the league for its attempts to block him.

Compounding the problem is Jack Kent Cooke's announced desire to serve both Washington and Baltimore with a team in Laurel, a desire that even Baltimore supporters in the NFL predict will be a problem.

"I think before any team could move to Baltimore, they wouldn't want a team in Laurel," said New York Giants co-owner Robert Tisch, who provided one of two Baltimore votes on the Expansion Committee.

Schaefer has met several times with Cooke, and has invited him to locate his team at Camden Yards, where public funding is in place for a stadium. The team owner thus far has refused, saying he would be better able to serve both cities from a site in the middle, and he is willing to pay the $160 million stadium cost.

Cooke adroitly has worked the state legislature, winning over key supporters, chiefly those from the Washington suburbs and fiscal conservatives opposed to public stadium funding. A bill already has been submitted to strip the football funding for Camden Yards out of the budget and redirect it into other needs.

Schaefer persuaded lawmakers in favor of the Laurel proposal to give him 60 days to get a firm commitment from a team; the reprieve expires in mid-February.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Prince George's, said he believes Baltimore's chances for getting a team are slim and the state shouldn't risk ending up with no team at all. Besides, the state could use the money for other things, such as hiring police to protect baseball fans at Camden Yards, Miller said.

Such an effort, however, would face a formidable political hurdle, because the Maryland constitution bestows on the governor uncommon authority over the budget. Schaefer could veto a bill to strip Camden Yards funding, and both houses of the legislature would have to muster a vote of three-fifths to override.

Legislative battle brewing

Furthermore, Baltimore-area legislators, such as Baltimore Sen. John Pica, have vowed a filibuster to preserve the funding, something that could provoke an ugly confrontation between the state's two most populous and politically powerful regions.

"This is not the right time to call an audible on what we're going to do with the lottery money, because you've got very legitimate possibilities with the Rams and Patriots. It would be premature to yank that money away," said Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg, D-Baltimore.

Cooke pointedly has noted that the NFL constitution grants each team a 75-mile territory, and that relocations require the approval of 75 percent of team owners. But Joseph L. Alioto, the attorney who successfully defended the Raiders in their move to Los Angeles, predicted neither measure would survive a challenge under antitrust laws.

More threatening is the possibility that other team owners simply would stay away if Cooke succeeded in building his stadium 15 miles outside Baltimore. Schaefer, using his budget authority, probably could block funding for the necessary road and utility upgrades, but Cooke has said he would be willing to negotiate who would pay those costs.

Football teams are increasingly looking toward sky-box and luxury-seat revenues -- which are not shared with visiting teams -- for profits. Teams in Laurel and Baltimore inevitably would compete for these fans.

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