NFL teams control recent wanderlust Relocation: Despite what seemed to be a trend, the NFL should face a period of stability thanks to several voter referendums and increased league intervention.

November 17, 1996|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,SUN STAFF

A year ago at this time, the NFL looked like a game of musical chairs that the fans were losing.

Both Los Angeles franchises were playing in new cities. The Houston Oilers were on their way to Nashville, Tenn. The Seattle Seahawks trucked their weight room to Los Angeles. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers looked as if they would be the next to bolt,

followed by the Arizona Cardinals and possibly the Cincinnati Bengals.

And, of course, the Cleveland Browns were on their way to Baltimore.

Suddenly, however, the NFL appears to have rediscovered hometown loyalty. In a league that was beginning to resemble a collection of nomadic tribes, it is remarkable that most of a season has gone by without a team announcing a move.

Is "franchise free agency" dead? More likely, it's just napping. The league still has little legal right to block teams that want to move, and the sport's peculiar economics provide plenty of incentives for moving to a better stadium, even in a smaller city.

But observers say the odds are against the sort of wholesale migration that gripped the sport last year. The newfound stability is the result of a number of factors, many of which stem from Baltimore's getting the Browns, now the Ravens:

With St. Louis' dome now full, and Baltimore's lease signed, there are no more NFL wannabe cities with funding in place to build a stadium. And as construction costs top $200 million, fewer will be tempted to get into the game.

Unnerved by the sight of the Browns jilting the most loyal fans in sports, voters in five cities have approved NFL stadium funding referendums this year. This has kept those teams from calling the moving vans.

The league, awash in criticism for its frequently flying franchises, has abandoned its taboo against interfering with club/city stadium talks. The results are mixed but the league is actively working in cities now, nudging team owners toward compromise and campaigning for stadium votes like candidates for office.

"You had a confluence of events last year which caused the matter to come to a head," said Marc Ganis, a Chicago-based sports consultant.

"It was a unique time period. That's not to say it won't happen again. But by their very nature, when a crisis gets resolved, it spawns stability," he said.

Cities still at risk

Several teams still have stadium problems and have to be considered candidates for moving. The Cardinals and New England Patriots top this list. The Indianapolis Colts are making noises of dissatisfaction, and the Denver Broncos and Chicago Bears are still in the heat of stadium talks. Furthermore, the NFL ++ has to put a team in Cleveland by 1999, and wants one in Los Angeles. Unless it's done through expansion, these cities will take teams from elsewhere.

But two powerful magnets have been eliminated: St. Louis and Baltimore. Both cities came out of the NFL's 1993 expansion without teams but with tempting stadium offers in place. After lengthy courting, the Rams moved from Los Angeles to St. Louis in 1995 and the Browns went to Baltimore.

Memphis, Tenn., the other losing expansion finalist, never committed funding to a new stadium. But its championing of Tennessee and the "Mid-South" market may have played a role in Nashville's obtaining the Oilers.

Also, last year's frenzy of team moves made believers out of some cities that might otherwise have taken their teams for granted. If the Browns -- one of the most avidly supported teams in history -- could leave Cleveland, how could the tepid fans of Tampa, Fla., hope to keep their team?

"There have been a lot of stadium deals struck because of the Browns' move," said Robert Harlan, president of the Green Bay Packers.

The result: a dramatic reversal in fortunes for the NFL at the voting booth. A league that has for years found itself on the losing side of stadium referendums is 5-for-5 over the past year. Voters have approved stadiums in Tampa, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Detroit and Nashville.

"I think the politicians and the league are doing a better job of listening to each other," said John Moag, chairman of the Maryland Stadium Authority.

"In the past, if an owner said, 'I need a new stadium,' the response was, 'Go to hell and take your team with you,' " said Moag, who lured the Browns to town.

Moag has been critical of the league's relationship with its host cities. But he said the NFL has gotten more proactive in the wake of the Browns' move.

In May, commissioner Paul Tagliabue issued a moratorium on team owners talking to other cities before the season is over, threatening a fine of up to $500,000.

Although the rule could easily be circumvented by use of surrogates, it indicated some newfound resolve by the commissioner, who has been widely criticized for not doing more to keep the Browns in Cleveland.

"I think there's been a lot of concern because of the backlash. I think the league got very concerned, and it's much quieter now," Harlan said.

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