Almanack: Franchise frenzy has Hound Dogs on the trail

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The Independent Online
BRITISH interest in American football is declining. The London Monarchs have been dethroned while the NFL debates the World League's future, quarterpounders mean more to British youth than quarterbacks, and once again you are more likely to see art movies on Channel 4 than Art Monk. But while all is quiet on the British front, in the US there is frenzied excitement as the NFL gears up to award two new franchises.

This week the owners of the National Football League's 28 teams - the same owners once characterised by First Down magazine as 'an obnoxious bunch of greed-heads' - meet in Chicago to vote on which two of five eager cities will be admitted to their ranks: the first time since 1974 that new franchises have been awarded. The candidates are Charlotte, Jacksonville, Memphis, Baltimore and St Louis. The winners will have to pay dollars 140m each for their franchises. Are they really worth the money? Peter Abitante of the NFL tut-tuts at such British small-mindedness. 'You have to remember,' he drawls from New York, 'that this is the most profitable and well-known sports league in the United States. When you consider that, you look at the figures and say: 'Well, why not?' '

Baltimore and St Louis, which both - like London - used to have teams of their own, are particularly desperate to succeed. 'Losing the team in 1984 was a real municipal slight,' says John Morgan, who has been covering the race for the Baltimore Sun. 'It's a big part of a city's self-image. The city has come a long way since then, been a model of urban renaissance, and this would be the capstone that would drive that home . . .' This kind of starry-eyed fantasising is typical of the contest, but most unbiased observers seem to believe that Baltimore has the best chance of all.

Biased observers disagree. 'We think we're the favourites,' Carey Hoffman of the Memphis Mayor's office chirps. 'Right now we're planning an NFL Watch Party that we expect just thousands of people to attend.' The question of a name for the team has caused a lively correspondence in the local press: the not-universally-popular choice is the Memphis Hound Dogs. In St Louis, Pat Washington, a municipal official, reports more ballyhoo in the newspapers: 'The media are saying, 'We're better than Baltimore, cut the crap and give us the team.' We've missed having a team terribly.' She then makes her own bid for Sports-Crazy Bureaucrat of the Year. 'I love going to the football. I'll be there at the first game with my blanket and my hot chocolate, even if it's 90 degrees . . .' Charles Chandler, a sportswriter for the Charlotte Observer, slavers: 'We're hungering for the NFL. If it comes our way on Tuesday I tell you this town is going to go nuts.'

Down in Jacksonville, Florida, the city reckoned least likely to succeed, officials are refreshingly cynical: 'We think we're going to get a team,' Valerie Brown, the Mayor's aide, asserts. 'We're a golf capital and the NFL owners love to play golf.' The Florida Times Union's Gene Frenet takes a similar line: 'It comes down to 28 rich men in a room being asked to vote,' he says, 'and the owners are going to vote for whatever is best for their wallets.'

With such considerations in mind, Almanack predicts that the franchises will be awarded to Baltimore and Charlotte. But will we ever see European millionaires jostling to be awarded the franchises for their cities? Spokesman Abitante indicates that the NFL certainly hopes that will one day be the case. And will the going rate be as high as it is in the US? Abitante giggles: 'It's hard to say.'

(Photograph omitted)