City's expansion bid was in the bank

January 27, 1994|By KEN ROSENTHAL

ATLANTA -- Hey, that's an ice sculpture of the Vince Lombardi Trophy. Here's Jeff Gordon's old stock car. There's former Olympic champion Al Oerter. Shrimp, beef kebab, fried dumplings. Care for something at the bar?

Welcome to the NationsBank party at the Super Bowl.

Just thought the customers at Maryland's largest bank might want to know how their money is being spent.

Not that any further proof is needed, but it's all out in the open -- NationsBank's hometown relationship with the Carolina Panthers and its cozy partnership with the NFL.

There's NationsBank chairman Hugh McColl, conducting a TV interview in a Panthers jacket. And here's Panthers owner Jerry Richardson, preparing to go on camera with McColl.

No one can fault McColl for backing Charlotte's expansion effort -- it was his civic duty. But when he talks about his efforts on behalf of Baltimore, well, let's not compare.

Why can't someone just say it?

Baltimore never had a chance.

It's plainly evident at this party. Richardson works the room like a champ, shaking hands, accepting congratulations, schmoozing reporters one moment, millionaires the next.

You'd never know that Richardson's company had just announced losses of more than $1.6 billion in the fourth quarter, and plans to sell or close 270 Denny's restaurants.

Boogie Weinglass is experiencing similar financial problems with Merry-Go-Round, but he wasn't trying to bring a team to virgin territory, didn't have McColl as his safety net and couldn't sell himself to the NFL.

At least Boogie could party.

Malcolm Glazer would have stood off to the side with his sons, gawking at the flashing lights and sports exhibits. Alfred Lerner would have stood in a corner facing a wall, then left early.

Richardson, the former Baltimore Colt (there, NFL, we said it, BALTIMORE COLT! BALTIMORE COLT! BALTIMORE COLT!), is oh-so-smooth.

Just tell him where you're from.

"I want to tell you how disappointed I am for Baltimore," Richardson responds before the introduction is complete. "My heart goes out to all my friends there."

The official, NFL-sanctioned response.

Sincere as Richardson might be, Baltimore is the least of his concerns. In just 20 months, the Panthers play the New York Giants in a preseason game at the Meadowlands.

"It's scary to think you don't have any players or a coach, and 20 months from now, you're going to expose your franchise to the New York media," he says.

Such problems.

Yet, McColl can't imagine why Baltimore might be upset with his bank. It helped finance the $173 million purchase of the Orioles, and would be happy to do the same for a new NFL franchise.

"If you talk to the governor, I offered to do anything I could to help Baltimore," he says. "I called key people. I was offended by your paper saying we weren't trying to help.

"We're still going to help Baltimore get a team. It's enlightened self-interest. We've got a huge investment in that city. We're going to be the best corporate citizens you can find."

Fair enough, but McColl jumped into a fountain the night Charlotte was awarded its franchise. NationsBank helps finance the Dallas Cowboys, the New York Yankees, NASCAR and the NFL. Baltimore was just another client. Charlotte was home.

When Richardson fell $30 million short in his sales of "premium seat licenses," McColl guaranteed half that total -- without consulting anyone else in his company, according to The Washington Post.

The Post story began, "The banking king is on the phone, cutting a deal to bring a professional football team to Charlotte."

To McColl, the second city couldn't have been as important. He pledged to buy the same number of luxury boxes and club seats in Baltimore and Charlotte, but what did it matter? NationsBank also does business in Jacksonville.

Anyway, stop worrying about it.

We're missing the party.

There's Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones with Wayne Huizenga, the man who wants to add the Miami Dolphins to his collection of South Florida sports teams.

And here's former Colt Mike Siani -- BALTIMORE COLT! BALTIMORE COLT! -- the manager of NationsBank's professional sports and entertainment group.

The buffet includes crab cakes, but as bland as they taste, they sure don't come from Baltimore.

Oh, what might have been.

Why can't someone just say it?

Baltimore never had a chance.

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