One snowy night was chilly forecast Football: When the Colts left Baltimore on a wintry night 14 years ago, they were only the second team to leave its city. Since then, five teams have relocated.

November 29, 1998|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

In 1984, there were no club seats, no permanent seat licenses, no Camden Yards complex.

There was only the legal threat of eminent domain and it was not enough to prevent Baltimore from losing its Colts to Indianapolis one snowy March evening.

That was an era of less sophistication and perhaps more naivete, and who knew the Colts would become trend-setters in the burgeoning business of NFL relocation?

Fourteen years and five franchise shifts later, the Indianapolis Colts make a historic return to play Baltimore's own transplanted team, the Ravens, this afternoon. The defining horseshoes will look the same, but so much about the Colts' organization has changed.

The biggest difference, of course, comes at the top. Robert Irsay, the team owner who moved the club in the middle of the night in 1984, died in January 1997. He was replaced by his son, Jim Irsay, who spent his first year on the job ensuring a Colts future in Indianapolis.

Confronted with declining attendance, a struggling team and diminished stadium revenues -- obstacles similar to what his father faced 15 years ago -- young Irsay hammered out a new lease agreement that will keep the Colts playing at the RCA Dome through 2006.

In a news conference with the Indianapolis media last week, Irsay, at 39 the youngest owner in the league, said he couldn't envision himself uprooting his team.

"It would just be very, very difficult to do that, having gone through the slow and painful crumbling of our situation there," he said of the Baltimore experience.

"If anything positive came out of it, it's remembering how to do the process and how not to let that happen. It's very easy to let the process start to go downhill."

Irsay, who was not available to the Baltimore media, pointed to breakdowns on both sides of the negotiating table in that rancorous showdown.

"The corporate and political partnership must exist with NFL ownership on all levels to make a team work in its community," he said. "That was a difficult situation because it wasn't there on almost any level.

"Carroll Rosenbloom had gone. We had taken over. A lot of popular players were let go. We won three division championships. By the early 1980s, we were struggling. It was a total breakdown on everybody's part, and I think it was something that could not be salvaged."

Franchise relocation was uncharted territory at the time. Al Davis had defied the NFL by moving the Oakland Raiders to Los Angeles in 1982. But in early 1984, Bob Irsay was granted permission by the league to find a new home.

Since then, five NFL teams have relocated. All but the Raiders' 1995 return to Oakland went through proper channels. Still more moves could occur in the near future. With legislative approval for a new stadium in Hartford, Conn., the New England Patriots could leave Foxboro, Mass., as early as 2001.

The Buffalo Bills might leave before that. They have a Tuesday deadline to sell $11 million in club seating at Rich Stadium. That would activate an agreement with the New York State Assembly to provide $63.25 million for stadium and facilities renovations in a total package of $95 million.

As of Wednesday, sales had reached $10.6 million. If the team is unable to hit the $11 million target, Bills owner Ralph Wilson can opt out of his lease after this season.

So, issues that were ground-breaking in 1984 now are commonplace.

"In 1998, there are more experienced people," Irsay said. "Politicians are more experienced [in sports business], owners are more experienced in handling a difficult situation. It takes a lot of patience. One missed step can often lead to another, and you can get to a point of no return. That's what happened with everyone involved in that situation."

The deal Robert Irsay accepted in Indianapolis included a $12.5 million loan at 8 percent interest, ticket and broadcast guarantees of $7 million to $12 million a year, a training facility, and the then-Hoosier Dome with 87 luxury suites. For that, he agreed to a 20-year lease.

With a better loan offer, Baltimore insisted Irsay sign a six-year lease to get state funds for improvements to archaic Memorial Stadium, including skyboxes. The problems with Memorial Stadium actually started with Rosenbloom's ownership, and neither he nor Irsay was able to resolve them.

When Baltimore played its eminent domain card -- whereby the state would purchase the team from Irsay -- it set in motion the March 28 move.

It took Baltimore a dozen years to get back into the NFL, and only after several failed attempts at luring existing teams or winning an expansion franchise.

The Colts' terms in Indianapolis pale in comparison to the bargains negotiated this decade. When the Los Angeles Rams moved to St. Louis in 1995, for instance, the city used $75 million from seat licenses to cover $30 million in team debts, the league's $29 million relocation fee, and $15 million for a training camp. Plus, the Rams had only to pay $250,000 in rent for their new, $260 million domed stadium.

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