Honor Unitas, but don't name stadium for him

October 20, 2002|By MIKE PRESTON

Now that the emotion and passion have subsided from the death of John Unitas, it has become apparent that the Ravens made a logical and economically sound decision by not renaming their stadium after the former Baltimore Colts great and Hall of Fame quarterback.

Soon after Unitas died on Sept. 11, I was like the 50,000 other Baltimoreans who wanted the stadium named after the player who transformed the NFL into the country's No. 1 sport and brought this city national fame.

The Ravens will pay tribute to Unitas and several of his Hall of Fame teammates at halftime today when they induct them into the club's "Ring of Honor" as well as unveil a statue and rename an area outside of the main gate Unitas Plaza.

Is this enough?

Probably not.

Unitas was the city's No. 1 sports hero. He was bigger than the Orioles' Brooks Robinson because he revolutionized a sport and stayed here in Baltimore. Robinson was perhaps baseball's greatest third baseman, but Unitas was a quarterback, a position that is one of the most glorious in sports.

Unitas vs. Cal Ripken?

Unitas is bigger because he walked among the common folk in everyday life while Ripken has a curtain between his professional and private life.

So, then, why not name the stadium after Unitas?

Because it's just not good business sense. As a pro sports franchise, the Ravens' main responsibility is to put a competitive team on the field every year that will compete for the Super Bowl trophy. But in doing that, there are certain economic restrictions and responsibilities that require good judgment.

According to Ravens majority owner Art Modell and minority partner Steve Bisciotti, giving up the naming rights in order to rename the stadium after Unitas would have a significant impact, one that would cost Bisciotti an additional $100 million in out-of-pocket expenses.

Bisciotti is expected to take over for Modell as soon as January 2004, when he has a 24-month window to exercise his option of becoming the club's CEO.

"He [Bisciotti] bought this team predicated on certain revenues, and one of the revenue expectations at that time was naming rights, which was PSINet Stadium, which went bankrupt," Modell said. "He predicated his cash flow needs based on certain representations that were made."

The PSINet deal would have netted the Ravens $5 million annually for 20 years, according to both owners. Bisciotti paid $275 million when he first agreed to purchase the team, and another $275 million is due when he assumes full control.

The team was initially valued at $600 million, but would be devalued by $100 million if Bisciotti gave away naming rights. Team sources have said banks already have informed Bisciotti about the added expense if he changes the agreement before January 2004.

"Let's say if you want to buy a townhouse for $100,000, you go to the bank, and they agree to give you a loan for $80,000," Bisciotti said. "But the owner decides to cut off part of the back yard and the sun room, which lowers the value of the house to $80,000. Well, the bank then says they are going to only give you $60,000, and you have to find an additional $20,000."

There are arguments that ownership in Cleveland and Cincinnati declined to use corporate rights, but the Bengals' deal wasn't as lucrative, and no team should model themselves after one of the worst-run franchises in sports the past decade.

As for the Browns, Cleveland owner Al Lerner is one of the richest men in the country, worth $4.3 billion according to Forbes magazine. A recent report valued Bisciotti's worth at $500 million.

It's hard for the average person to comprehend, but Bisciotti is not in Lerner's ballpark. Bisciotti also has $24 million invested in a new Ravens training facility that will open in the spring of 2004.

The decision isn't about greed, but common sense.

"Players get 63 percent of our gross revenue from things like television, tickets and a zillion of other things," Modell said. "We keep 37 percent to pay all the other expenses. The only expenses that are not shared with other teams or players comes from suites, naming rights or club seats. The economics of this game insists that naming rights be required.

"All the revenue streams are needed to operate a business like this because of paying coaches, updating facilities, doctors, health care and many other things. An owner had to maximize revenue streams so he can pay a Ray Lewis or a Peter Boulware."

Under the former agreement with PSINet, it would have taken the Ravens four years from that deal just to pay Lewis' $19 million signing bonus, and another three years to pay for the $12 million signing bonus Boulware received in September.

There are 53 players on the regular roster.

"I sat down and talked with the Unitas family, and they understood," Bisciotti said. "They said their father would have preferred any of that money to go to a charity instead of using it to name a stadium after him."

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