A gag circulating in pro football was the the Baltimore Colts, not the Dallas Cowboys, really were "America's team' because of owner Bob Irsay threatening to move to Memphis, Jacksonville, Los Angeles or some other city to get better accommodations.
The whole focus changed yesterday. Maryland and Baltimore government officials, mindful of having lost the Bullets basketball team and fearful about the future of the Orioles baseball team, made an offer that Irsay is not likely to refuse -- $24 million worth of improvements to Memorial Stadium. Irsay made his most effective move when he got NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle to carry the ball in negotiations.
The Colts are ready to sign a lease for about 10 years if renovation plans offered yesterday represent a solid commitment. Rozelle, it has been learned will urge Irsay on Wednesday to withdraw a request to shift the team at a meeting of club owners in Dallas.
The mayor of Baltimore has called a meeting of city officials, business leaders and media representatives for 4:30 p.m. today in the new Convention Center, where a ticket drive to help keep the Colts in Baltimore will be launched, similar to one for the Orioles in January. Thirty-four Colt Corrals (poster clubs) also will be represented.
Isray is not scheduled to attend because he will be on his way to visit his son at Southern Methodist University and stay in Dallas for the league meeting.
If he remained in Baltimore for the rally it is believed he would have felt compelled to commit himself on the spot to respond to the enthusiasm.
With Rozelle as his broker and witness to the conditions of the stadium renovation offered by Mayor William Donald Schaefer and Gov. Harry Hughes, Irsay formally will accede to the commissioner's urging that he withdraw his request to move.
The plan Irsay favors is among three suggested by Hughes. It provides for extending the upper deck on both sides of the field. It would not increase the stadium capacity of 60,020, but would replace 13,000 temporary bleacher seats, lower boxes and seats with obstructed views with better seats.
Irsay will have accomplished what a mover and shaker such a the late Carroll Rosenbloom failed to bring about before trading the franchise for the Ram franchise, and moving to Los Angeles in his frustration.
Irsay got Rozelle involved about a month ago and then as an organization spokesman put it, "Things started to happen."
Rozelle met with the governor mayor Thursday and Hughes sent a telegram to the commissioner yesterday outlining the planned stadium improvements.
Rozelle repeatedly has testified before Congress that the NFL opposes moving franchises out of their traditional areas, noting that the only shift during his administration was the Cardinals leaving Chicago for St. Louis in 1960.
A spokesperson for Hughes said the governor wanted a long-term lease, commitments by both the Colts and Orioles as a condition to making improvements, but the Colts do not regard their negotiations as being connected with the Orioles to the extent that they have to wait on the Orioles.
The governor's spokesperson reported that Edward Bennett Williams, new owner of the Orioles, breakfasted Thursday with Hughes at the governor's mansion, where the stadium improvement plans were explained to Williams, who is also president of the Washington Redskins football team.
Sources close to the situation say Williams prefers a new stadium. The Colts would want to share such a structure, were it approved.