Taking NFL to court may not win a move

November 12, 1994|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,Sun Staff Writer

Football-hungry Baltimoreans, convinced the NFL doesn't want a team here, say the city's leaders should simply slug it out in court to get a team here.

Legal experts, however, say the outcome would be uncertain.

"The league does have some authority to stop a move," said Duke University law professor John Weistart, an expert on sports law.

Local investors are wooing the Los Angeles Rams and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and although the league has not said outright that it would reject such a move, some owners have suggested they wouldn't support the relocation of either team.

Washington Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke has made it clear he would oppose any move to Baltimore.

Moving a franchise is tricky business, and leagues generally frown on the instability. Among existing football teams, there have been only 10 moves since the league was founded in 1920, including that of the Baltimore Colts to Indianapolis.

But the NFL has not been able to stop any move in court.

"The court decisions are really confusing in this area," said Lisa Pike, a professor of sports law at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

"If Angelos just said . . . 'I'm moving the team,' I'm not sure what the owners can do," Pike said of Orioles owner Peter Angelos, who is trying to buy a franchise and move it to Baltimore.

The NFL constitution does permit a move when a team is not supported at home. After a humiliating defeat in court when it tried to block the Oakland Raiders from moving to Los Angeles, the league established a set of guidelines designed to govern franchise movement.

Before the change, the league required unanimous approval for a team to move. The courts found that too restrictive, and the league adopted a three-quarters vote.

The legality of the new guidelines is untested, and the league could face an antitrust lawsuit if it tried to invoke the rules. Antitrust laws, designed to encourage competition among companies, carry a high cost for the loser: triple damages.

That may, by itself, scare off potential opposition.

"It's really going to come down to two questions: Can Tampa Bay adequately support a team, and where does the team go?" && Weistart said.

The league's guidelines require a team to prove that it is not adequately supported at home before it can move.

Factors to be considered include the adequacy of the stadium, fan loyalty, public funding used by the team, the role the owner has played in the team's failure, operating losses and whether there is another team in the current or proposed home.

The Buccaneers and Rams draw among the smallest crowds in the NFL. Last year, the Rams averaged 45,401 and the Buccaneers 47,187, well below the league average of 60,444.

And neither team plays in a stadium with the cash-generating potential of modern, skybox-crammed facilities.

But their markets are large and potentially valuable to the NFL, a factor the league can take into consideration when restraining moves, Weistart said.

Baltimore was selected as a finalist in the expansion race by several votes of NFL owners, making it difficult to argue the city is not up to NFL standards, he said.

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