Latest Rams flap only proves NFL moving guidelines are a flop

ON THE NFL

April 16, 1995|By VITO STELLINO

Fasten your seat belts. Baltimore's football fans are about to take another rocky ride on the NFL Franchise Chase.

This has been one of those virtual-reality rides. There are a lot of ups and downs, but it always has ended where it started for Baltimore -- without a team.

There are going to be some new twists and turns this time and nobody can predict whether it's going to have a better ending for Baltimore.

The latest saga started when commissioner Paul Tagliabue misjudged Los Angeles Rams owner Georgia Frontiere. If Tagliabue had hammered out the deal he made with the Rams last February, announced the team met the moving guidelines -- which are open to virtually any interpretation -- and approved the move, the NFL still could act as if it had some control of the process.

Instead, Tagliabue gambled that Frontiere would sell the team or back down, announced the Rams didn't meet the guidelines and recommended the owners reject the move last month.

Frontiere, though, didn't back down. Instead, she said that if the owners rejected the move again last Wednesday, she would be in St. Louis on Thursday announcing her team was the St. Louis Rams and would play there this fall. It would be up to the NFL to stop her in court.

Tagliabue blinked and made a deal. The Rams agreed to pay $46 million, give up $13.3 million in expansion fees and pay $12.5 million more if Fox gets a TV rebate. The move then was approved.

In effect, the NFL was admitting that its guidelines are meaningless. The NFL thought the Rams didn't meet the guidelines, but the league didn't want to fight the Rams in court.

The message that Mike Brown, the Cincinnati Bengals' owner, took from the meeting was that if a team wants to move, the NFL isn't going to fight it. Even if the team wants to come to Baltimore.

The next day, Brown was telling Cincinnati reporters about the tradition in Baltimore.

"There are certainly attractive aspects to Baltimore," he said.

He remembered seeing his father's Cleveland Browns beat the Colts, 38-31, at Memorial Stadium in 1959 ("I have very fond memories of that game"), and the Bengals playing their first playoff game in Baltimore in 1970 and losing, 17-0 ("It was very cold and windy, the dust was swirling around.")

He was doing nothing to contradict the impression that he is interested in Baltimore if the city of Cincinnati doesn't solve his stadium problem.

Meanwhile, John Moag, chairman of the Maryland Stadium Authority, said he's ready to meet with Brown. When both were asked if they had met, they declined comment.

In a related development, the NFL said it wants to put a team in Los Angeles to replace the Rams and says it will screen the candidates. But it doesn't seem eager for the Bengals to fill that role. Brown is a conservative football man who doesn't fit the glitzy Hollywood image.

So, a lot of rumors started flying. One -- printed by the Cincinnati Post on Page 1 -- was that the Bengals would move to Philadelphia and the Eagles to Los Angeles. That sounds far-fetched, although Eagles owner Jeff Lurie has been a movie producer and wants a new stadium. If Al Davis of the Raiders gets a new one at Hollywood Park, Lurie could share it in this

scenario.

Brown said he hasn't heard that rumor, but it wouldn't make sense for him to go to Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia when he can have a new stadium in Baltimore.

What Brown wants to know is whether Cincinnati will give him a new one. The Cincinnati Enquirer reported that Cincinnati business executives met privately with Brown and Reds owner Marge Schott last week in an attempt to solve the problem.

Ralph Michael, vice chairman of the Cincinnati Business Committee, said, "You can expect the business community to be there when the chips are counted." Whatever that means.

Moag also has a message for Brown. He would like an answer by this fall before the 1996 state budgets are put together.

The Maryland legislature started raiding Moag's stadium fund last month when it gave $2 million to Jim Speros, owner of the Baltimore Canadian Football League team. The legislature will take the rest by May 15, 1996, if the city doesn't have a team by then.

The stadium bonding legislation may remain in place -- State Sen. John Pica said he thinks the pro-Baltimore forces can win the fight to preserve it for at least another three or four years -- but Moag doesn't want to take any chances. If the Bengals don't want to commit here soon, he wants to talk to other teams.

If construction starts on the new stadium by this fall, it could be ready by 1997. A team playing at the new stadium will bring in $42 million in ticket revenue. Playing at Memorial Stadium until the new one is built, a team would bring in $30 million, so there's a $12 million difference for each year the stadium isn't built.

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