With a few public utterances and a phone call or two, Washington Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke has sown the seeds of a civic booster's nightmare: the potential loss of the city's beloved professional football team to a home in the suburbs.
By suggesting that the Redskins have outgrown Robert F. Kennedy Stadium, the 74-year-old communications and real estate magnate has raised the possibility that he, too, might join the parade of sports team owners who have fled big-city stadiums for new sports complexes outside the city limits.
Some dismiss Cooke's threat as nothing more than a bargaining ploy, noting that the Redskins' 30-year lease at RFK Stadium expires after the 1990 season. Others are not so sure, recalling the midnight flight of the Baltimore Colts to the Indianapolis Hoosierdome in 1984.
Cooke "is attuned to this area and he is not moving," said Jim Dalrymple, who manages the stadium for the D.C. Armory Board. In the view of some officials, Cooke would be hard-pressed to find a better and more accessible location for the stadium, situated at the center of the region against a backdrop of the nation's capital and its monuments.
But football officials and fans have long known that the stadium has shortcomings ranging from limited seating to compromises in design that stem from its construction as a baseball arena.
Even before a meeting next week between Cooke and D.C. Mayor Marion Barry, surrounding communities have begun jockeying for advantage should the owner decide to take the Redskins elsewhere. Fairfax, Prince William, Loudoun, Prince George's and Montgomery counties have expressed varying degrees of interest in hosting the team.
"I'm optimistic that he'll stay in the Washington area and optimistic that we'll put something together that is better than what he has now," said John Gessaman, director of economic development in Prince William County, south of Fairfax. Cooke has said he has no interest in leaving the region.
Inevitably, that prospect has raised fears that Washington could relive the experience of Baltimore, where the loss of the Colts was viewed as a major blow to the local economy and civic pride.
"It has a ferociously adverse effect on a community to lose a major league team," said Ed Rovner, a former chairman of the Maryland Sports Complex Authority. " 'Major league city' has come to mean things other than baseball or football. It means vitality, people with disposable income, sophistication. It refers to the whole fabric of the city. And losing a major league team implies that somehow it has lost its cosmopolitan edge."
Maryland Gov. William Donald Schaefer feels so strongly about the value of professional sports that he wants the state to build two stadiums in Baltimore, one for the Orioles and another for a possible expansion team of the National Football League. On Tuesday, Maryland's highest court ruled that the state could build the stadiums without voters' approval in a statewide referendum.
By some reckonings, Cooke is practicing a variation of a familiar strategy in which a team owner plays one city against another, triggering a kind of bidding war. "Stadium-mail, blackmail, call it what you want," said a source familiar with the stadium negotiations. "The team owners have found a good way to bargain."
At the top of Cooke's wish list is a 75,000-seat domed facility to replace the existing stadium.
"It's not at all atypical," said Robert Baade, an economist at Lake Forest College in Illinois who served on Chicago's stadium task force. "They see an easy mark. If they can get the public to pay for it, why not go for it?"
By raising the possibility of a new stadium, Cooke also has revived debate about the economic value of professional sports and how much money the public should be willing to spend on its behalf. A new stadium would cost about $200 million.
Opinion polls in Maryland suggest there is widespread public skepticism over Schaefer's stadium plan. Before the Court of Appeals made the effort moot, opponents collected 45,000 signatures to place the issue on a statewide referendum.
"I think we often get so emotionally involved with stadiums and teams that we don't do the kind of sound financial thinking that needs to be done," Baade said. "Everybody fears the moving trucks will come in at midnight and the team will be gone."
The team has compelling reasons for staying right where it is. Tradition and the loyalty of its fans is one. Access is another. RFK is well served by transportation facilities, including I-295 and the Stadium/Armory Metro stop on the Blue and Orange lines. The stadium has 12,000 parking spaces and the subway carries between 15,000 and 20,000 people to each football game, according to Dalrymple.
But a move to the suburbs would hardly spell the end of Washington football. The team is as much of the region as of the city, attracting more than two-thirds of its fans from Maryland or Virginia, according to some estimates. (A spokeswoman for the Redskins' ticket office said she could not provide a specific breakdown.)
Few would dispute that Cooke has legitimate grievances.
With 55,750 seats, RFK Stadium is the third smallest in the National Football League, ahead of Houston and St. Louis. About 16,000 individuals and businesses hold season tickets for all the seats with a waiting list of 20,000, according to a source. Nearly 3,000 people on the waiting list added their names in the last two weeks alone, most them Northern Virginians who think the Redskins someday may be theirs, the source said.
The team is one of just two in the league that do not have luxury boxes, a major source of income for most of the 28 NFL franchises. In Dallas, for example, the Cowboys have 296 luxury suites that sell from $300,000 to more than $1 million.
Moreover, under the terms of the Redskins' lease with the D.C. Armory Board, Cooke collects no revenue from concessions or parking. "RFK Stadium has a very, very good lease with the Redskins," said Dalrymple. "I'd say it's very favorable to the city." He added, "The concept in which they dealt 27 years ago has changed tremendously with the way it has been done in the last five or 10 years."
As far as the fans are concerned, the biggest complaint has to do with the view from the seats at field level, a carryover from the stadium's design as a baseball stadium. Because team players and staff members line both sides of the football field, seated fans sometimes have a hard time seeing the action.
In a television interview on Aug. 20, Cooke publicly broached the idea of a new stadium. He reiterated his plea a week later at the Redskins' annual luncheon at the Sheraton Washington Hotel, telling the audience, "I hope, and almost pray, that one of our communities, preferably the District of Columbia, invites us to talk about building a new stadium for the Redskins."
There is ample precedent for a move to the suburbs. The New York Giants and the New York Jets moved from New York City to the massive new Meadowlands complex in New Jersey. The Detroit Lions moved from Detroit to the Silverdome in Pontiac, Mich. The Los Angeles Raiders, having moved to the Los Angeles Coliseum from Oakland in 1982, recently announced plans to move to a new stadium in Irwindale. The Los Angeles Rams, who once played in the Coliseum, now reside in Anaheim.
City officials have not responded publicly to Cooke's overture. Mayor Barry has steadfastly refused to comment on the possibility of losing the Redskins. Neither City Administrator Thomas M. Downs nor Carol B. Thompson, the deputy mayor for economic development, could be reached for comment.
But Cooke's comments appear to have made an impact. In a letter to Barry last week, D.C. Council member Carol Schwartz (R-At Large) urged him to "commit sufficient funding to a project designed to keep our viable and valuable football team in the city."
A spokesman for the mayor said Barry had spoken with Cooke by phone and is committed to keeping the Redskins; the mayor will discuss the matter with Cooke at a meeting Monday, according to a source.
If Barry is unsuccessful, Cooke will suffer no lack of suburban government officials eager to sit down for a chat. Last week, the Prince William Board of County Supervisors voted to write Cooke and request a meeting with him. Fairfax County Board Chairman John F. Herrity has expressed interest. Prince George's County officials said they would be happy to talk with Cooke, but only if he fails to resolve matters with the District of Columbia. Montgomery officials' response was similar.
In a few places, speculation has already turned to matters of location and financing. Lance Billingsley, president of the Prince George's County Economic Development Corp., suggested a spot near the Capital Centre in Landover. Virginia Del. David Brickley (D-Woodbridge), in a letter pitching the idea to Gov. Gerald L. Baliles, mentioned sites off I-66 near Manassas or I-95 near Woodbridge.
In Prince William, Gessaman, the economic development director, raised the possibility of a bond issue, adding that the county might hire consultants to explore alternatives.
More is at stake than prestige. RFK Stadium employs more than 2,000 people during a typical football game, from hot dog vendors to the electricians who keep the scoreboard functioning. It attracts visitors from around the region, many of whom linger in bars and restaurants after a game.
Suburban officials think in terms of economic development. If a stadium were built in the right place, some officials believe, hotels and office complexes would surely follow.
Spurred by those kinds of concerns, cities have gone to extraordinary lengths to keep, or attract, professional sports franchises. Baltimore officials, for example, tried to keep the Colts by guaranteeing 40,000 season tickets and a $10 million loan at 6 percent interest. They also offered to buy the Colts' practice facility for $4 million and rent it back to the team for $1 a year.
Not everyone supports the idea of spending public money on a new stadium for the Redskins, which is a profit-making enterprise. "The bottom line is no subsidy," said Rovner, the former stadium authority chairman, who now serves as special assistant to Montgomery County Executive Sidney Kramer. "If he's saying, 'Give me 200 acres on the Beltway,' the answer is a flat no."
Baade, the economist, warns that public investment in professional sports has not always paid off. "A lot of people will argue that promotes spinoff development in the area, but in many cases that hasn't occurred," he said, citing the Minneapolis Metrodome as an example.
Also, few stadiums can generate enough income to operate profitably. The Meadowlands sports complex, Baade said, has been sustained largely by revenue from its racetrack.
Rovner and others suggested that Cooke could finance the stadium by paying for it himself. Some see an example in Miami, where Dolphins owner Joe Robbie raised $100 million and built a stadium on his own. Robbie Stadium, which debuts this season, is the only arena owned and operated by a football franchise, according to Amusement Business, an industry newsletter.
But few people are predicting, for now, that the Barry administration will commit the city to a new stadium, no matter how well the Redskins play this season.
It also seems likely that at least some of Cooke's grievances can be redressed. The city already has committed $13 million for stadium improvements in the hope of attracting a baseball team, and stadium officials say others are in the works. One plan under study would add about 3,000 seats.