The football business falls on hard times

November 09, 1995|By Peter A. Jay

HAVRE De GRACE -- So the Cleveland Browns are to come to Baltimore. Many people are sorry already, and as time goes by, it's a good bet that their ranks will grow. Some other people are naively overjoyed, but their euphoria won't last.

As even the most enthralled local politicians have conceded, there is something supremely repugnant about the spectacle before us. Here is once-martyred Baltimore bellying up to the same grimy table where it was cleaned out 11 years ago. Only this time, as it busily plots to snatch a famous football team away from a city that loves it, it expects to come away a winner.

Even if your sensitivity level doesn't exceed that of a concussed cornerback, you can probably still spot the irony. But this isn't a morality tale, and there isn't much point searching for villains.

Maryland Governor Parris Glendening and Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke had each, for years, devoutly recited the mantra that Baltimore deserved an NFL team. So they can't very well be faulted now for giving municipal destiny a hand by pursuing the Browns. A deliberate decision to do otherwise might not have been popular, and taking an unpopular stand on principle would not have been in either fabled statesman's risk-averse character.

SOO-eee!

It was easier and more productive just to wait. William Donald Schaefer, who preceded each of them in office, had already filled the trough. About all that was left for his successors to do was shout SOOO-eee and stand out of the way. The Browns, perhaps because they were the smartest or the hungriest, or perhaps because they'd been tipped off in advance, were the first ones through the hoghouse door.

As for Browns owner Art Modell, he makes a persuasive economic case for his move to Baltimore. Cleveland taxpayers certainly hadn't subsidized his operation to the exorbitant level that big-time sports franchises now demand, even though some 70,000 people came to the Browns' home games, and even though millions of public dollars had been poured into Cleveland's baseball and basketball operations.

When Baltimore promised big bucks to the first NFL team to accept them, the fiscal imperative overwhelmed tradition. This seemed treachery in unsophisticated Cleveland, but as platoons of worldly-wise talking heads have been reminding us for days now, for Mr. Modell it was simply a business decision.

Bloviating bobirsays

In an odd way, the fact that Art Modell himself isn't personally repugnant, and that he has over the years earned respect as a sober, serious man quite unlike the bejeweled egomaniacs and bloviating bobirsays who seem to own many of the National Football League's teams, only intensifies the unpleasantness of the situation. If this is the way one of the NFL's putative nice guys behaves, what does that tell us about the whole institution?

Mostly that it's in trouble. It seems highly likely that sooner or later, the gas is going to go out of the overheated National Football League balloon. The yuppies and well-to-do couch potatoes who are now willing to pay large sums for their tickets will acquire other interests. This will reduce both gate receipts and the teams' political clout.

Even as this happens, costs will continue to rise as players demand an ever larger share of revenues.

Subsidy-hungry and increasingly desperate owners will make the bouncing of franchises from city to city ever more common. And obviously, without the loyalty of teams to communities, the reciprocal loyalty of communities to teams cannot be long maintained.

As local discontent builds slowly and inexorably into national contempt for megasports in general and the NFL in particular, the great life-sustaining gusher of television revenues will gradually begin to die. The networks may not be very perceptive about trends, but when it becomes obvious where the public is going, they can always be relied upon to rush over and assume their leadership posture.

Well, with regard to the newly-arrived Browns, how might an ordinary Maryland person express an opinion about the current conduct of the National Football League? Here's some inexpensive advice from a would-be Miss Manners on the banks of the Susquehanna. Add 53 cents and it's worth at least the price of this newspaper.

Don't be nasty toward Mr. Modell and his employees. If you meet them in the 7-Eleven, welcome them to Baltimore. Wish them good luck. Make them feel part of our community. But if you think their tickets are overpriced, don't buy them. And keep a hawklike eye on local and state government, so that when new subsidies are requested -- and they will be -- you'll be in a position to help shoot them down.

And when some fool challenges you, and suggests that in your reluctance to support Cleveland's former team you're showing disloyalty to Baltimore, tell him politely that it's nothing personal. You've just made a business decision.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

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