With change in strategy, Baltimore could lure NFL

January 29, 1995|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,Sun Staff Writer

There are few things Baltimore has fought for so ferociously or ineffectively as getting back into the National Football League.

Clearly, much of the current trouble lies outside the city's control: Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke is opposed to the city's efforts, and Baltimore has become a virtual Washington suburb in the minds of some league demographers.

But interviews with people in and near the NFL, and in cities that have successfully attracted teams, suggest that strategic missteps have contributed to Baltimore's woes, and that the city is still viewed favorably by much of the league.

To many, Baltimore remains a viable NFL market, rich in heritage and home-team enthusiasm that could overcome opposition from Mr. Cooke and its geographic handicaps with the right approach. But, they acknowledge, it won't be easy or cheap and may require a protracted legal battle.

Among the suggestions of those sympathetic to Baltimore: The state's leaders should halt their vitriolic criticism of NFL owners and officials, unify behind a prospective ownership group compatible with the league, consider building a stadium, and develop stronger relationships with team owners and the commissioner.

"I don't think I'd give up," said Atlanta Falcons owner Rankin Smith. "You take a lot of cities like Jacksonville, and they tried for years and years, and they persevered. The fact that Baltimore had been there before and supported the NFL is enough to keep hope up.

"I think a lot of teams have shown a lot of interest in moving there."

Baltimore has over the past year struck out in the only three ways cities get teams: expansion, persuading an owner to relocate or buying and moving a team. But several franchises are rumored to be either for sale or candidates for a move, largely because of the importance of new stadiums in NFL economics: the Cleveland Browns, Houston Oilers, Cincinnati Bengals, Los Angeles Raiders and Seattle Seahawks.

Baltimore has come a long way since 1984, when it refused to build a new stadium for the Colts, despite the Hoosier Dome ominously rising in Indianapolis.

The current offer, assembled in the failed pursuit of an expansion franchise in 1993, is far more expensive to the state and potentially enriching to the NFL. At its core is nearly $200 million in public spending, including a $180 million football-only stadium at Camden Yards and a $5 million upgrade of the old Colts training complex at Owings Mills so a team can practice indoors or out, on artificial or natural turf.

Thanks to lucrative lease terms, a team playing here would become one of the richest and most valuable in sports. Visiting teams would take home more than $1 million a game in gate receipts, twice the league average. But that powerful attraction has not been enough, even for a sport resentful of the acclaim bestowed on major-league baseball for its new playing fields.

"I think [Baltimore has] got a hope, sure," said Thomas J. Guilfoil, secretary and general counsel to the Arizona Cardinals, a team that nearly moved to Baltimore from St. Louis in 1988 but instead selected Phoenix. "It's obviously a big market. But I don't want to minimize it. It's fraught with a lot of difficulties.

"Does Baltimore really want a team badly enough to pay the price?"

It can be done

Another expansion is probably too far off and will include Canadian or Mexican competition, he said.

Persuading a team to move from another city would pit Baltimore against both the home town and the league office, which doesn't like relocations, he said.

But it can be done, as the Cardinals demonstrated.

"I think it is like a war. You've got to have a strategy, tactics," Mr. Guilfoil said. "You have to have a cohesive group."

Most of all, Mr. Guilfoil said, Baltimore should find a way to work with the NFL, not against it, if possible.

"You don't shoot your way in," he said.

Mr. Guilfoil said the city has shown a weakness in two areas: having a coherent, compatible ownership group and demonstrating insider knowledge of league politics.

"Personalities are important, and I think they were important in the selling of Charlotte and Jacksonville [the cities that received expansion franchises in 1993]," Mr. Guilfoil said.

Although the NFL restricted lobbying of owners during the final stages of expansion, the winning cities had established deep contacts and found ways to circumvent the rule. Representatives of their ownership groups consulted early and often with former NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle, general managers, friendly team owners and even the people who landed the 1996 Olympic Games for Atlanta.

"If there was one thing that hurt Baltimore, in my opinion, it was having multiple ownership groups," said Rick Catlett, a longtime strategist for Jacksonville. "The league clearly in recent years has wanted to deal with ownership, not government."

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