SBJ/November 9 - 15, 1998/No Topic Name

Houston eyes existing teams

NFL teams seeking lucrative new stadium deals are gaining muscle as a potential ownership group in Houston readily admits it's looking to land a team not only through expansion but via relocation if it loses out in the expansion sweepstakes.

"Our primary focus has been on expansion, but if the league decided to go to Los Angeles, then [relocation] would be a viable option," said Steve Patterson, executive vice president of Houston NFL Holdings Inc., the investment group led by Robert McNair that is trying to bring football back to Houston. "We've got the Astrodome in place for the short term."

That strategy only gives NFL teams seeking better stadium deals added leverage, particularly if one or both groups seeking a franchise for Los Angeles takes the same view.

"I would say it's helping," said Buffalo Bills owner Ralph Wilson Jr., who has the option to take his team elsewhere if it fails to sell $11 million in luxury suite and club seat revenue by Dec. 1. "Cleveland moves, and all of a sudden they get a great new stadium."

Bills officials said they haven't used relocation threats to push sales, but a local business group recently bought ads in the Buffalo press asking fans if they liked the sound of the Los Angeles Bills or the Houston Bills.

"I'm sure [the threat of relocation] is out there in a sense, but we are not using it," said Bill Munson, assistant general manager for the Bills. "The ads have helped us out, but we've never threatened to leave. People are supporting us."

NFL owners said they expect to decide by March to award either Houston or Los Angeles an expansion franchise that will give the NFL 32 teams in 2002. But the NFL isn't stopping either city from buying an existing team through relocation before then.

Whether the Los Angeles groups will take Houston's approach remains to be seen.

The leader of one of two L.A. groups seeking a franchise declined to discuss the possibility of buying an existing team. "We are presently focused on the acquisition of the 32nd franchise," said Peter Levin, point man for Michael Ovitz's bid for an NFL franchise in Los Angeles. "In regard to issues such as the purchase of existing teams, we are taking our lead from the NFL and the collective ownership group."

Spokesmen for the other group seeking a Los Angeles franchise, which is led by real estate developer Ed Roski Jr., couldn't be reached.

During the recent NFL owners meetings, Commissioner Paul Tagliabue stressed that both Houston and Los Angeles represent important regions for the league. "There is no AFC team in the southern tier of the country, and there is a huge segment of population on the Pacific Coast," he said.

Given that importance, teams like the Bills and the Arizona Cardinals in search of more lucrative stadium deals are finding themselves with increased bargaining power. "There are haves and have-nots in the NFL in terms of stadium deals, and if various communities expect to retain clubs, they have to adjust to the marketplace," Patterson said. "Houston has done it, Baltimore has done it, and so has Cleveland. You can't expect other cities to exist in a vacuum."

Arizona Cardinals officials did not return calls for comment.

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