SBJ/January 25 - 31, 1999/No Topic Name

Payton has grip on ownership

Former Chicago Bears great Walter Payton is poised to become the Arena Football League's newest owner after officials tentatively approved the NFL hall of famer's application for the AFL's 18th franchise.

Payton applied for an arena league franchise last month with plans to play in the Rosemont Horizon, just outside Chicago next to O'Hare International Airport. The league has notified Payton that he has been selected, although the deal won't be final until the financial transaction is completed.

"We've got tentative approval, and we're working hard to complete the process to bring the deal to fruition," Payton said, declining to disclose his partners.

Arena league officials would not confirm Payton's selection, but an announcement is expected in early February unless the league finds fault with Payton's financing.

"We can't confirm it until it's done, but we would be thrilled to have Payton as part of the league," said Arena Football League spokesman David Cooper.

Payton and his investors are expected to pay more than $5 million for an AFL franchise, which is what a Los Angeles investment group paid for an expansion team awarded three months ago.

Payton's effort to win an AFL franchise began in September when Payton was negotiating with the Prospect Development Corp., a company that unsuccessfully bid on a franchise to play in its new arena planned in Chicago's northwest suburbs.

Payton ultimately decided to bid for his own AFL team, fueled by the NFL's increased interest in the indoor spring football league.

The two leagues are negotiating to expand their relationship, building upon last year's decision by the NFL to allow individual team owners to invest in AFL franchises.

"The relationship between our leagues has reached a higher level of participation and activity," Cooper said. "I expect that as we continue developing a game plan that potentially there could be future announcements."

Payton's investment in the AFL forges one more link to the NFL. The New Orleans AFL franchise is owned by New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson, and the AFL wants to position itself closer to the NFL.

"We are working on some things, and there may be something soon," said NFL spokesman Greg Aiello.

The AFL will field 15 teams this year and add teams in New Orleans and Los Angeles in 2000. Payton's deal would give the league 18 teams playing next year.

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