Baltimore's NFL Stock Is Rising

October 16, 1994|By VITO STELLINO

Baltimore's bid to get a National Football League team has been struggling in a decade-long bear market.

But the city's stock started rising Wednesday when an Anne Arundel County planning official rejected zoning requests vital for the Washington Redskins to build a stadium in Laurel.

Now that the stadium proposal is in deep trouble, it will be more difficult for the NFL to question Baltimore's ability to support a team while sharing the area with the Redskins.

And because it now seems likely that the Redskins will either stay in Washington or move to Virginia, Baltimore is in a much better position to entice either the Los Angeles Rams or the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Baltimore has suffered a series of setbacks since losing the nTC Colts to Indianapolis in 1984. The setbacks include the bungled attempts to lure the New Orleans Saints and the St. Louis Cardinals, the election of Washington lawyer Paul Tagliabue as NFL commissioner, the decision of influential New York businessman Robert Tisch to buy half of the New York Giants instead of bidding for a Baltimore franchise and the opposition of Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke.

Just last week, former Sen. Thomas Eagleton, who is spearheading St. Louis' bid to attract the Rams, said that Baltimore was out of the running for that team.

But he was singing a different tune after meeting with the Rams in Los Angeles the day the stadium proposal was rejected.

"If we'd call Jimmy the Greek today, he'd put them [Baltimore] back in the hunt," Mr. Eagleton said. "The Laurel situation seemingly had knocked them out of the box. With Laurel going the other way, they're back in the hunt.

"Baltimore has a reputation for being a great football town. The Rams believe Baltimore has greater intensity, greater zealotry for football [than St. Louis]."

Mr. Eagleton said he still thinks St. Louis has an advantage over Baltimore because its domed stadium is under construction and Baltimore won't build a football stadium unless it gets a team.

History shows that Baltimore and Washington can support NFL teams. During the 1960s -- when the populations of both metropolitan areas were smaller -- the Colts and Redskins attracted sellout crowds.

But last year, Mr. Cooke began building the perception among other owners that Baltimore could not support a team -- especially with the Redskins playing 15 miles away.

The reality is different.

Baltimore fans have no history of supporting Washington teams in any sport. With 40,000 fans already on the Redskins' season-ticket waiting list, most Baltimore fans would not have been able to attend games at the Laurel stadium anyway.

Perhaps if Mr. Cooke actually believes that Baltimore and Washington are one NFL market, he might have moved the Redskins to the proposed football-only stadium at Camden Yards. Of course, that would have left the door open for another team to move to Washington.

Nevertheless, Mr. Cooke appeared to be winning the perception battle. Baltimore was bypassed for expansion teams that went to Charlotte, N.C., and Jacksonville, Fla.

Two weeks ago, Mr. Cooke pressed for an NFL owners' vote on the Laurel move. Before the vote was taken, John Shaw, the executive vice president of the Rams, specifically asked Mr. Tagliabue if a Laurel stadium would prevent a team from moving to Baltimore.

After Mr. Tagliabue said it would have no impact on Baltimore or the ability of teams to move, the Rams voted for the proposal, which passed 23-1, with four abstentions.

The Cincinnati Bengals voted no, and four others -- the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Indianapolis Colts, the Philadelphia Eagles and the Los Angeles Raiders -- passed.

Despite Mr. Tagliabue's comments, the perception remained that the vote to approve a move to Laurel was another nail in Baltimore's NFL coffin.

That's all changed now that the Laurel stadium has been rejected.

Although Mr. Tagliabue and Mr. Cooke are still likely to oppose a team's move to Baltimore, it will be more difficult to stop one now than it was to steer the expansion teams away from Baltimore.

Most of the owners weren't very interested in where the expansion teams went. When Mr. Tagliabue recommended Charlotte and Jacksonville, they simply rubber-stamped the recommendations.

They're not so eager to rubber-stamp his recommendations when their own interests are at stake.

For example, they have so far rejected Mr. Tagliabue's suggestion that they realign along geographical lines because they don't want to change current rivalries.

In addition, an attempt to block a team from moving might invite a suit the owners don't want to fight.

Los Angeles Raiders owner Al Davis won a court fight to move the team from Oakland in 1982. The league has since instituted guidelines for approving moves. But there's no guarantee those guidelines could withstand a court challenge.

Mr. Davis would not oppose a move by any team. He passed on the vote on the Laurel move because he felt it did not need league approval.

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