If the decals pasted on the helmets of U.S. Football League teams were to represent the teams' owners rather than the traditional abstractions of ferocity and power, the Washington Federals could well replace their proud eagle with an incongruous trinity: a gavel, a silk tie and a microphone.
Attorney Berl Bernhard is the team's principal owner, but no one has a majority interest and the partnership that controls and finances the Federals includes not only the legal profession but the clothing and communications businesses.
In fact, Bernhard and the seven other general partners who run the team are divided into three corporations under the umbrella title Capital City Sports Management Inc.
Bernhard, R. Robert Linowes and Richard Natalie, all prominent Washington lawyers, make up one corporation; David Pensky and Rick Hindin, co-owners and founders of the Britches clothing stores, and Hindin's attorney, Sidney Silver, make up the second; Carl Hirsch and Milton Maltz, the chief executives of the Malrite Communications Group Inc., a Cleveland-based company that owns 10 radio stations, four television stations and various cable systems, make up the third.
While Bernhard makes most of the decisions, he says he consults his partners on major issues.
Bernhard attests that he is "one of the poorer owners in the league." Although his law firm--Verner, Liipfert, Bernhard and McPherson, which he helped found in 1960--has a clientele that includes Pan American World Airways, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, the Kennedy Center and the National Steel Corp., Bernhard says his assets are "a pittance" compared to those of New Jersey Generals owner and oil entrepreneur J. Walter Duncan or Michigan Panthers owner and shopping center developer Alfred Taubman.
Wealthier owners such as Duncan and Taubman own their teams outright, but Bernhard's first task after deciding to begin a franchise here a year ago was to develop not a roster of players but of investors. He had to sell limited partnership shares worth $300,OOO each in order to cover the $6 million letter of credit required of each team by the USFL.
"I just started combing everybody I knew," said Bernhard, who ran Edmund Muskie's presidential campaign in 1972 and worked for the former Maine senator when he became secretary of state in 1980. Despite his political, legal and business connections, Bernhard said, "In the first month, I was ready to walk, there was so little financial support . . ."
But when he gained the commitment and investment of Linowes last April, investors became more interested. Linowes is head of his own law firm, Linowes & Blocher, and former president of the Washington Board of Trade. He also is one of the area's more visible business organizers. His first contribution to the Federals was to call Robert Sigholtz, the general manager of RFK Stadium, and arrange for the Federals to play there.
"I think I may have a little more community identification while Berl has a more national reputation," said Linowes, who also serves as the Federals' vice chairman. "The team takes up practically none of my time. I didn't get involved in this so much as a money-making proposition. I just thought it would be fun. The tax writeoffs aren't as wonderful as they used to be . . . when you could take writeoffs on . . . salaries."
Hindin agreed that the promise of future profits was the financial incentive. "This is not a good tax shelter at all," he said. "It was really the demand for live sports programming on television in the spring that was attractive. There is simply no sporting event that works as well on television as football. It was that hypothesis that sold all of us on this."
While it is true that certain real estate and oil investments have more attractive tax advantages than sports franchises, business losses are still a tax writeoff. And Bernhard said the team lost $1 million in 1982 and expects to lose at least $1.5 in each of the next two, possibly three, years.
All eight general partners are investors as well. In addition, Bernhard sold limited partnerships to such other investors as Gordon Davenport of Chattanooga, Tenn., the owner of Wendy's and other fast food chains, and Peeke Garlington of Atlanta, an insurance and business entrepeneur.
"Sure, we expect to lose money for about four years, but these people saw it as a profitable venture," Bernhard said. "The danger spots for all the owners are if a few of the teams don't do well at the gate.
"This project, though, has been an exciting diversion. If you look at it as a cold turkey investment, I doubt whether many people would say, 'I'd love to lose money for four years.' They have to be in it for something else."
The Federals are expected to announce today the signing of Joe Walters, the leading receiver in the Canadian Football League last year. Walters' contract with Saskatchewan expired and he officially became a free agent yesterday . . . Five players previously released were re-signed yesterday and probably will be assigned to the 10-man "developmental squad." The players added were Morehead State defensive back Jeff Postell, Shepherd College guard George Snowden, Liberty Baptist quarterback and punter Mike Forslund, Clemson defensive back Hollis Hall and Maryland offensive tackle Rod Caldwell.