Baltimore's football owners: depressing history

January 02, 2000|By JOHN STEADMAN

No other city in America has had to endure the pain of Baltimore when it comes to owners of its pro football teams taking advantage of the fervor and enthusiasm of a community. It will ultimately make a new multimillionaire out of an eventually debt-free Art Modell just as previously happened with two other grand sports, Bob Irsay and Carroll Rosenbloom.

The incoming owner, promised in four years, is Stephen Bisciotti, who sounds almost too good to be true. Bisciotti, let it be said, has the chance to be the best owner any Baltimore football franchise ever had. In truth, he doesn't have much to beat.

So far, since revealing intentions of buying the team from Modell, he has remained in the background, not pushing to get his name and picture in the newspapers or even inching into the spotlight. He is somewhat limited in his knowledge of the great history of the game and when he said the only two owners he remembered reading about were Wellington Mara of the New York Giants and Modell, he was revealing how little he knew about the rich background of the sport he is hopefully going to be a part of in 2004.

He might like to research the contributions of George Halas and Paul Brown, who was voted the outstanding executive of 80 years of NFL history. But Bisciotti has the interest and apparently the finances to allow Baltimore to feel good about itself, instead of being interested in enhancing his own wealth as other owners have done in Baltimore's past and present.

The question still unanswered is how Modell, drawing capacity crowds in Cleveland and now in Baltimore, could have created such a web of financial entanglements. He's getting a reprieve from Bisciotti, who may have saved Modell from the expense and embarrassment of having the league take over the property.

Baltimore has had atrocious luck with football owners. They plundered.

After Irsay and Rosenbloom had inflicted their demands on Baltimore, it remained for the beloved Art Rooney, owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers and rarely critical, to say: "It's a wonder there's anything left of the town after what Rosenbloom and Irsay pulled off."

How could Baltimore have been subjected to such woeful examples of owners who had only one desire: to "rob" the citizens and then think up new ways to keep getting in their pockets?

A quick review of what happened to the city and its football owners, commencing with Baltimore's entry into the NFL in 1950, shows a pattern of ongoing consistency -- exploitation of you, the public.

Fans -- rich, poor and middle class, even vast corporations -- have taken a shellacking via the demands placed upon them by what the history books tell us the owners individually schemed to do.

The owners, though, continue with their insatiable demands to make money at the expense of almost defenseless, naive citizens who made the league the success it is by their past support.

For gratitude, they are subjected to still more ways to skin them financially.

Fans in Baltimore, desperate for football, were clubbed over the head with the unreasonably high cost of tickets, permanent seat licenses and concession-stand prices that are outrageous.

In chronological order, in case you've wanted to forget, here's what Baltimore has had to endure with a succession of football owners, originating with the Colts entry into the NFL exactly 50 years ago: Abe "Shorty" Watner: Had one-season term in 1950. Then he sold what didn't belong to him, the entire Colts franchise, to the league for $50,000, which included two Hall of Fame players, Y.A. Tittle and Art Donovan, plus a future governor of Massachusetts, one Edward J. King, a middle guard.

Watner's action resulted in Baltimore's taking strong legal steps against the NFL.

Meanwhile, commissioner Bert Bell was quick to seize upon the troubles that beset the bankrupt Dallas Texans. He moved that team here in 1953 to settle the Baltimore litigation, but first the city, in a six-week period, had to buy 15,000 season tickets, raising more than $300,000 for operating capital.

Rosenbloom: Assumed 51 percent of the ownership in 1953, but the franchise was paid for with money from the season-ticket sale, meaning Rosenbloom and his four partners didn't have to invest a penny of their own money to bring the Colts back to life.

Yet Rosenbloom added exhibition games to the season-ticket prices and duped the city out of its share of tickets for championship games and two Super Bowls. Out-of-town scalpers wound up with tickets, and thousands of Baltimore fans were denied the opportunity to be there.

Rosenbloom, attracted to Los Angeles because of its show-biz culture, bought the Rams from Irsay, who had purchased the club from the estate of Dan Reeves. But to avoid capital gains, Rosenbloom devised a trade of the two properties, which is how Irsay wound up in Baltimore in 1972 and Rosenbloom in Los Angeles.

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