Magazine article Insight on the News

Owners Fear Free-Agent Fans: Football Moguls Moving Their Teams from City to City May Get Tackled for a Loss

Magazine article Insight on the News

Owners Fear Free-Agent Fans: Football Moguls Moving Their Teams from City to City May Get Tackled for a Loss

Article excerpt

The National Football League managed to make two rights from a wrong. Cleveland Browns owner Art Modell will be permitted to move his franchise to Baltimore, while Cleveland will retain the Browns' name and colors and is guaranteed a replacement team by 1999. Still, there was no jubilation among NFL owners weary of the three-month controversy. They know "team free agency" is just getting started.

Once a pillar of permanence among sports leagues -- not a single franchise moved from 1960 to 1982 -- the NFL has seen three teams relocate in the past year. Two more are seeking approval and at least three others are looking elsewhere. At least another four teams reportedly are contemplating relocation.

All this makes NFL owners nervous. Having surpassed baseball in popularity in recent decades, pro football is being threatened by the National Basketball Association, where superstar players such as Michael Jordan, Shaquille O'Neal, Charles Barkley and Magic Johnson are on a first-name basis with fans under 30. Longtime NFL owners such as Dan Rooney of the Pittsburgh Steelers and newcomers such as Jerry Jones of the Dallas Cowboys fear fans' interest could plummet in abandoned regions while new markets fail to compensate for that loss. "No matter how hard we've tried, the owners have screwed it up," says Jones, whose team won this year's Super Bowl, its third in the last four years. "We have to get our act together."

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The NFL, the only major American sports league without a team in Canada, may have to shelve plans for international play -- it will lose the Pacific Northwest market if the Seattle Seahawks move to Los Angeles, the nation's second-biggest television market and one that was abandoned last year when the Rams left for St. Louis and the Raiders returned to Oakland. "We have very serious concerns in Seattle if the Seahawks just pick up and move," says NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue.

The Southwest also might be on the verge of losing two teams. The Houston Oilers are due to move to Nashville and the Arizona Cardinals are becoming the favorite to replace Modell's franchise in Cleveland. Although Oilers supporters could shift allegiance to the Cowboys and the Cardinals never developed a big following in Arizona, their departures would create a region of free-agent fans searching for a team with their satellite dishes. Worse yet, fans in Arizona could shun the NFL, instead turning their attention to the NBA's Phoenix Suns; the NHL's Winnipeg Jets, who will relocate to Phoenix with a new name next season; or baseball's Arizona Diamondbacks, scheduled to debut in 1998. …

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