Public still golden goose to cocky NFL

January 24, 1998|By KEN ROSENTHAL

SAN DIEGO -- Ravens owner Art Modell had it right Thursday, telling the Rocky Mountain News that the NFL's new $17.6 billion TV deal might have "slammed the door" on publicly financed stadiums.

Denver Broncos owner Pat Bowlen probably didn't want to hear it, but Modell was in a unique position to lock the gates, seeing as how his own publicly financed PSL palace is nearing completion at Camden Yards.

"I agree with what [Dallas Cowboys owner] Jerry Jones said. This TV contract makes teams a lot less reliant on other forms of revenue," Modell said.

"I think Pat has a good, sound position on needing a new stadium, but I don't know how politically inviting it will be for the city fathers to support it. With this kind of money coming in, that's going to be an awfully tough sell."

Well, guess what?

The NFL is going to sell it, anyway.

"I don't think we can claim poverty. We haven't done that," commissioner Paul Tagliabue said yesterday. "But there are very strong economic benefits in public-private partnerships on stadiums."

Art?

"I agree with that. I agree with the commissioner 100 percent."

In fairness, Modell backed off his initial comments almost immediately on Thursday, saying, "I might have misspoken and I don't want to be misinterpreted. I think Pat is deserving of every consideration for a new stadium."

Yesterday, he elaborated.

"You can't go in with your hand out, saying, 'We need to be competitive. Give us a stadium My point is, there are other reasons for public support other than being competitive and trying to sign free agents.

"You want a source of community pride, a source of community spirit. You get that when you have a new stadium, a facility like Oriole Park."

In other words, keep paying, suckers.

The NFL is practically bursting with cash, but the owners still want their friendly neighborhood taxpayers to foot as much of the stadium bills as possible.

You expected a leopard to change its spots?

Modell said he would have left Cleveland even if the new television deal had been in place two years ago. His reasoning was simple -- Cleveland Stadium was falling down.

"Leaving Cleveland was not an economic -- sure, economics played a part, but we were playing in a stadium on the verge of collapse, period," Modell said.

"It became a danger to the Cleveland public. It probably didn't have four years to go in its foundation, based on the engineering reports we received.

"Now they're building a new stadium. The TV thing would have had no bearing on it. I would have stayed if they would have done then what they're doing now."

You could argue that Modell could have built a new stadium himself with his $73 million a year in TV revenue, even if two-thirds will go to the players.

But Modell contends that with only eight regular-season home games, the Ravens don't generate the gate receipts of a major-league baseball team playing 81 home games, like the Orioles.

Whatever, Tagliabue said Bowlen has agreed to pay 25 percent of the cost of a new stadium in Denver, which is expected to run as high as $330 million.

Modell is contributing approximately 5 percent toward the Ravens' $220 million stadium, excluding land costs. He also bought the naming rights for $10 million, but probably will make money on that deal.

Only one other team will play in a publicly financed stadium and enjoy the right to sell PSLs -- the new Cleveland Browns.

The new TV deal might discourage another team from practicing such extortion, but the basic NFL philosophy remains intact:

You're lucky to have us around.

"We feel we bring more to the community than other sports, by far," Modell said. "Look at the TV ratings, the craze out there in San Diego this week. We're a dominant force in the marketplace."

Tagliabue spoke of the millions who enjoy "this form of entertainment, this passion." Economists, however, dispute the impact of a sports franchise that occupies its stadium only 10 times a year.

Think the NFL cares?

NB As Baltimore knows all too well, the league can do whatever it

wants, whenever it wants, to whomever it wants -- and with the new TV deal, it can act even more arrogantly now.

Heck, even where the NFL isn't wanted, it would not hesitate to barge right in.

Almost 60 percent of southern Californians surveyed in a Los Angeles Times poll said that having a pro football team was not important. Naturally, Tagliabue dismissed the poll, and called the return to L.A. "a priority."

For now, the league's most pressing issue is Cleveland, which is guaranteed a team by 1999. Tagliabue said there is growing sentiment among the owners that the city should get an expansion team, not a relocation.

"We haven't made that decision, but we've made a lot of progress in resolving issues that teams had in their cities," Tagliabue said. "Indianapolis is one, Seattle is another. You can go right down the list."

Well, the Cincinnati Bengals are still a possibility to relocate -- and no matter what Tagliabue says, it's more lucrative to slice the TV pie 30 ways rather than 31.

Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis predicted Thursday that the expansion fee for a new team in Cleveland would be $500 million. Tagliabue did not dismiss that figure, calling it a "throw-around number."

Modell joked, "I can't count that high," but even at that exorbitant price, the owners are better off practicing the economics of scarcity, their time-tested method of operation.

Abandoning Cincinnati, delaying Cleveland -- anything is possible. That $17.6 billion from the networks is nice, but Tagliabue called it "just the beginning."

Taxpayers, beware. The NFL still thinks it deserves more.

Pub Date: 1/24/98

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