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Original Issue

Send In the Clowns

NFL owners have turned the awarding of an expansion franchise into a circus

So who is running the NFL right now, Wayne or Garth?

In the space of five days last month the league owners: 1) lost a $114 million antitrust suit; 2) gave an ovation to an admitted alcoholic gambling addict; and 3) stiffed a roomful of respected businessmen and politicians who had been kept waiting five years.

If a large tent had been handy, it would have made a very nice circus.

But the worst is still to come. At the end of this month, the owners will do the wrong thing and give a franchise to St. Louis and not to Baltimore.

Why anybody wants an NFL franchise in the first place beats us. The price is $140 million, you get only half a share of TV revenue for three years, one network is talking about bolting, and the quality of the game is the crummiest since the days of the Pottsville Maroons. Last week in the NFL three cappuccino vendors and a hat rack started at quarterback.

However, if some team is going to join the Charlotte Panthers as the second expansion franchise, it ought to be in Baltimore—the city that gave us Johnny U, The Greatest Game Ever Played and the Colt marriage quiz in Diner, the best sports scene ever in the movies. Baltimore has a history with the NFL. Baltimore was selling out pro football games when Charlotte was basically three guys on a bench.

St. Louis, on the other hand, doesn't give a can of JockItch about the NFL. St. Louis was the only city of the five applying that didn't sell all its luxury boxes. The old St. Louis Cardinals never won a home playoff game and were generally to the game of football what skateboarding is to the Indy 500.

St. Louis fans lost their franchise. Baltimore fans did not lose the Colts. The Colts were stolen from them by Bob Irsay, a man his own mother called "a devil on earth." Ten years ago he moved the team to Indianapolis in the skinny hours of the night. Colt fans did not lose faith. To this day the Baltimore Colt marching band still exists.

Is St. Louis offering the best deal? Hardly. If it is awarded a team, Baltimore will build—free—a gorgeous football-only stadium right next to gorgeous Oriole Park at Camden Yards. For this the new Baltimore owner will have to pay $1 a year.

Does St. Louis have the best fans? Please. St. Louis is a baseball town. In St. Louis, kids learn to honor three things: God, family and the cutoff man. Even on the day the football Cardinals moved to Phoenix, the headline in St. Louis was: OZZIE GOES 1 FOR 3; FOOTBALL TEAM LEAVES.

Does St. Louis have the best owners? Nope. In fact St. Louis isn't even sure it has owners. On Oct. 25, the day before the league was supposed to name the two new franchises, one St. Louis ownership group dropped out and two new mystery groups popped up. One, headed by former New England Patriot minority owner Fran Murray, wasn't even scheduled to appear at the league meeting in Chicago and hadn't even put up the $100,000 application fee, not to mention the $20 million letter of credit.

Yet Murray got to speak to a joint meeting of the finance and expansion committees, partly because he had Leonard Tose, the former owner of the Philadelphia Eagles, in tow. Mr. Tose is a very classy individual who only lost more than $25 million gambling, broke up with four wives, tried to choke one and had to sell his team to pay off his huge gambling debt. Maybe the owners wanted to get legal advice from Mr. Tose, who has been suing one of the casinos that have all his money. He is mad at the casino because it gave him free drinks when he gambled, causing him to do things he never would have done otherwise, like gamble.

When Mr. Tose entered the meeting on Oct. 26, the assembled owners gave him a very nice ovation. "He is beloved by the membership," said Murray. The beloved guest speaker at the next meeting: Senator Robert Packwood!

Anyway, the owners were so impressed by Mr. Tose that they decided to give St. Louis more time to get its act together, even though the other three cities that still believe they have a shot at the second franchise—Baltimore, Jacksonville and Memphis—not only were ready but had been ready and waiting and drooling and doing somersaults and giving free back rubs and stuffing lobsters in NFL owners' mouths for five years.

In fact the Baltimore contingent that day included the mayor and the governor and about nine zillion Minicams and reporters. Everyone held his breath as NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue strode to the microphone for the historic announcement: "Er, can we get back to you on this?"

So now Baltimore and everybody else will be tortured until the next meeting, scheduled for Nov. 30. Whatever day it happens, St. Louis will get the franchise. St. Louis will get the franchise because the NFL is proud to be Buds with Budweiser, the St. Louis-based beer Godzilla that is the league's biggest advertiser. If Budweiser were headquartered in Pinkwater, Idaho, the NFL would be telling us how delighted it is finally to be tapping into the all-important Pinkwater market. So much for the review process.

The NFL used to be the shiniest model on the sports showroom floor. Now it is a rusted-out 1973 AMC Gremlin with 14 parking tickets. Paging Mr. Rozelle. Paging Mr. Pete Rozelle.

And the Baltimore Colt marching band plays on.