The Cincinnati Bengals were dealt another financial blow this week, one that will make it more difficult for the team to survive in Cincinnati if it doesn't get a new stadium soon.
The Bengals, already coping with a rising player payroll and a $36 million tax battle with the Internal Revenue Service -- and whose owner already has held exploratory talks about a move to Baltimore -- found out they won't be getting any meaningful revenue sharing from the big-market teams.
So without a new stadium on the horizon, and the revenue-sharing plan a disappointment, Bengals owner Mike Brown said he's running out of time.
"A small-market team without a Grade A stadium is not going to work in the NFL for very much longer," he said.
When players and owners agreed to a new collective-bargaining agreement in 1993 that gave players free agency and raised payroll costs for small-market teams, the ownerspassed a resolution that called for more revenue sharing to help the low-income teams.
But when revenue sharing finally was passed at a meeting in Jacksonville, Fla., on Wednesday, it was of little solace for the Bengals and other small-market teams.
Jerry Jones, owner of the Dallas Cowboys, led a successful fight to make sure the big-market teams wouldn't have to give up any of their revenue for gate receipts at home games.
Under the old plan, the home team kept 60 percent of gate receipts for regular and premium seats, and the visiting team got 40 percent of each. Now, the home team will continue to keep 60 percent of all gate receipts, but the visiting team's 40 percent will include only regular-seat sales. The 40 percent share of premium-seat sales now will go into the revenue-sharing pool, along with the $20 million the league got from the St. Louis Rams as a relocation fee.
It means the 15 teams with below-average revenue will divide $18 million a year for the next four years. The Bengals' share will be about $1.5 million a year, but they would have gotten some of that money anyway when they visited a team with club seats.
This revenue-sharing plan did nothing to change the situation in which teams with club seats still have a big advantage over teams that don't.
Brown was disappointed at the result.
"I'm not going to look a gift horse in the mouth, [but] if I had known we were only going to get $1.5 million, I wouldn't have agreed to this system," he said.
Jones, meanwhile, made it obvious he has no sympathy for teams that don't have lucrative home stadiums. His solution is for them to move.
"I'm all for history, but, frankly, the remedy for the franchises who can't cut it is to move to a city that can support them," Jones said.
Brown has left no doubt that moving is an option. Although he told the owners he's not interested in going to Los Angeles, he has had talks with Baltimore, which has the funding in place for a new, football-only stadium next to Camden Yards. Neither Brown nor John Moag, head of the Maryland Stadium Authority, will comment on the discussions.
Adding to the Bengals' financial woes is a $36 million tax lien filed against the Brown family by the IRS over the purchase of shares in the team from Cincinnati businessman John Sawyer. The IRS claims the shares really belonged to the estate of Mike Brown's father, the late Paul Brown, and should be subject to tax.
Mike Brown said he'll fight the IRS, but the danger is that if he loses, he could be forced to sell the team -- or sell a minority share -- to raise the money unless he gets a stadium that produces more revenue.
The Bengals also are facing rising player costs. When the owners got a salary cap, most of the focus was on richer teams, such as the San Francisco 49ers, cutting their payrolls.
But small-market teams had their costs raised; each team must spend a minimum of 58 percent of the average NFL team revenue. A team such as the Cowboys spends about 50 percent of actual revenue, but the Bengals spend closer to 70 percent.
The Bengals' costs jumped from $31.1 million in 1992 to $35.2 million in 1994 and will jump again this year because the cap is going up to $37.1 million. League revenues will rise even more next year, when St. Louis and Jacksonville start playing in new or renovated stadiums. That means the cap will rise again, and a team such as the Bengals will have increased payroll without increased revenue.
That helps explain why the state of Ohio and the city of Cincinnati are trying to find ways to fund a new stadium complex with premium seats to give the Bengals more potential revenue. The idea is to build a baseball-only stadium for the Reds and to rebuild Riverfront Stadium into a football-only stadium.
A state task force is expected to make a recommendation next week -- but the state is expected to come up with no more than 15 percent of the cost -- and a county task force plans a report in mid-June.
The indications are that the county will try to get a blend of private and public funding to get the stadium complex built. The estimated cost is about $250 million.
Before Brown decides on his future, he wants to see what kind of plan Cincinnati can put together.
"We're going to see what Cincinnati can get done in the next month," he said.
In an effort to explore all avenues, the Bengals have even hired Max Muhleman, who invented the idea of permanent seat licenses in Carolina, to study the possibility of selling them in Cincinnati. But Brown makes it obvious his bottom line is getting a new or rebuilt stadium.
"If we can't get a stadium in Cincinnati, we'll have to [go] to the league and ask for something [the right to move]," he said. "Our choice will be that or go under. And I don't know that that's a choice."