NFL's road to moving is snarled

March 10, 1994|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,Sun Staff Writer

So you want to move your NFL team to Baltimore.

You've negotiated a lease for the new stadium, construction of ++ which soon will begin. Season tickets are flying out of your new Camden Yards office like so many screen passes. All that's left to be done is calling the Mayflower trucks, right?

Not so fast. The NFL has a series of rules governing franchise movement, which, if upheld in court, could prove a significant roadblock to Baltimore's getting a team even if a willing franchise can be found.

Only 10 of the existing teams have moved since the founding of the league in 1920, and none since the St. Louis Cardinals went to Phoenix in 1988. The Baltimore Colts moved to Indianapolis 10 years ago this month.

Among other things, NFL rules require the consent of three-fourths of team owners and stipulate that a team prove a lack of hometown support before moving. And a relocating team may be required to pay a premium to the league to compensate the other owners for the loss of a potential expansion site or to pay a nearby team for invading its territory.

Specialists in antitrust and sports law say the enforceability of all the rules is in question, but the expense of fighting them could prove prohibitive if the league actively opposed a team move to Baltimore. At the very least, this could prove a boost to cities without the complication, such as St. Louis.

The league hasn't said it would fight a move to Baltimore. In fact, NFL team owners twice voted the city a finalist for an expansion franchise -- something that some legal experts say could prevent the NFL from claiming the city is unsuitable for a team.

But Baltimore is only half the equation: A team owner wishing to move must convince the other owners to abandon a city already in the league, and the league is reluctant to do that.

"We have policies which are to encourage continuity," NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue said recently. "They are designed to encourage and require teams to maintain traditions. They require teams to show some kind of financial need and financial basis for moving.

"It is our full intention to adhere to those policies."

However, NFL spokesman Greg Aeillo added: "You cannot hold a team forever in an untenable situation, in a situation in which you cannot compete.

At one time, league rules required 100 percent approval from other clubs before any team could move -- essentially giving every team a veto on another's relocation. But a judge, ruling in a lawsuit involving the 1982 move of the Oakland Raiders to Los Angeles, said the requirements were too strict and the criteria too vague.

The judge allowed the Raiders to move over the objections of the NFL, and forced the league to pay Raiders owner Al Davis nearly $35 million. But the judge also said the league could enact reasonable rules governing relocation.

So the league revamped the rules. Moving a franchise now requires a three-fourths vote of the other teams. The team owner must also make a case for relocation based on such factors as stadium quality and financial performance.

The new rules never have been challenged in court, but could satisfy the standards established by the Raiders case judge, said Martin J. Greenberg, director of the National Sports Law Institute at Marquette University.

"All of these cases are based on the rule of reason and what the facts and circumstances are and whether the particular application is pernicious to commerce," Greenberg said.

The ability of sports leagues to control team movement has a long and tortured history in court. Leagues argue that they are each a single entity, akin to a partnership, and should be able to set policy for its members. The NHL, using this defense, was able to block a move of the Oakland Seals to Vancouver in a case settled in 1974.

That was the last time the argument held. Since then, a series of decisions has taken the opposite view: the leagues are a collection of independent businesses that have only limited ability to collude to restrain trade.

"Courts are going to be skeptical of NFL efforts to restrain relocations," said John Weistart, an expert on sports law at Duke University.

Weistart and Greenberg agreed that the league would have a hard time arguing that Baltimore could not or should not support a team because the owners made the city a finalist for expansion. Baltimore lost out late last year to Charlotte, N.C., and Jacksonville, Fla., in a field of five finalist cities.

Investors seeking to bring a team to Baltimore say they have explored the legal issues -- and even contacted the attorney who defended the Raiders in their case -- and express confidence they can prevail.

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