NFL team not without its price

November 06, 1996|By KEN ROSENTHAL

On this, the first anniversary of The Announcement, sports fans should offer a moment of silence for the Cleveland Browns, then ask a variation of a question once posed by Ronald Reagan:

Are you better off now than you were a year ago?

In Baltimore, the answer is yes -- NFL Sundays are back, and fans can spend their autumns fretting about the Ravens instead of counting the number of days until spring training.

But is sports better off?

The answer is no, no, a thousand times no.

Oh, it was a great day for Baltimore when Gov. Parris N. Glendening stood on a makeshift stage waving a Browns mug last Nov. 6. And it was an even better day for the city's new best friend, Art Modell.

We got a team.

Art got the deal of a lifetime.

But fans everywhere got shafted.

Baltimoreans are tired of this argument -- few cried for the city when the Colts left, and even fewer understood the state's rationale for stealing a team.

Still, provincialism goes only so far.

We don't live in a vacuum. We're one sports town among dozens in this nation. What happens in one affects another.

The Browns' move was an earthquake that altered the sports landscape. It wasn't the first move. It won't be the last. But it sent a universal message to fans across North America:

It can happen here.

No matter how popular the franchise, no matter how deep its BTC tradition, no matter how many times the owner says he won't move.

Modell might be a pariah in certain circles, but he should be a hero to all owners.

He made their life easy.

No city can feel safe now.

When the Ravens visited Denver earlier this season, a columnist urged the construction of a new stadium, arguing that Mile High Stadium was outdated and that the Browns moved despite similar fan support.

And when Cincinnati visited Baltimore last week, team officials openly cheered in the press box -- an unprofessional yet understandable display, considering that every victory is critical for the future of the franchise.

The Bengals, you see, must sell 50,000 permanent seat licenses by April 30 to secure their new stadium deal, or they could wind up the new Cleveland Browns.

Is all this Modell's fault? Of course not. He didn't invent PSLs, club seats and luxury boxes. Nor did he create the inequity between small- and large-market teams that exists in other sports.

These are the trends driving franchise free agency. You can argue that Modell was a poor businessman. You can argue that he deserved better in Cleveland. But clearly, he needed a new stadium -- even Cleveland recognized that in the end.

And so the game continues, in one city after another, a new arena here, a new stadium there. Baltimore can't simply bury its head in the sand and say, "We got ours." When you're buying PSLs for a publicly financed stadium, there's little to brag about.

We got ours, all right.

Are we better off now than we were a year ago?

Well, we're certainly poorer.

The NFL is such a powerful draw, the new stadium still figures to sell out, and perhaps then the city will warm to the Ravens. Right now, the crowds are docile. The TV ratings are disappointing. And the water-cooler talk is almost always about the Orioles.

All that should change when the Ravens start winning, and develop a history of their own. But Modell never went to a Super Bowl in Cleveland. And, unlike an expansion franchise that starts anew, the Ravens might be in a five-year hole.

Consider some of their moves this season.

They released their supposed running back of the future (Earnest Hunter). They released a tight end they acquired for a second-round draft pick (Harold Bishop). And they wasted $750,000 in salary-cap money by keeping, then releasing, running back Leroy Hoard.

Meanwhile, the Ravens could have had both New York Giants quarterback Danny Kanell and Miami running back Karim Abdul-Jabbar had they not traded three picks to move up and select cornerback DeRon Jenkins.

In fairness, their two first-round picks -- offensive lineman Jonathan Ogden and linebacker Ray Lewis -- were excellent. And Modell was bold enough to sign running back Bam Morris, though the Ravens have yet to use him properly.

It could be that this team is destined to remain mediocre, and that Baltimore will never embrace it fully. But at least there's a team to talk about now. At least there's a coach to second-guess. At least there's football.

The sad part is, we got what we wanted, and still there's a certain emptiness.

On this, the first anniversary of The Announcement, who can deny the trade-off?

Baltimore is better.

Sports is worse.

Pub Date: 11/06/96

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