In Montreal, the Expos scramble for financial help because the fans are not supporting someone else's national pastime. In Washington, three groups compete with each other and against the powerful opposition of Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos. In Charlotte, however, a single group with strong financial backing and the tacit support of some Major League Baseball officials and owners is working confidently to bring the Expos and major league baseball to North Carolina.

The three investment groups trying to bring major league baseball to the national capital area face a surprisingly tough foe in Charlotte, especially when comparing demographics of the two areas (Washington-Northern Virginia ranks eighth nationally in population, Charlotte 27th).

Charlotte's confidence going head-to-head with the Washington area groups is twofold:

Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig is known to be well disposed toward Charlotte, whose banking industry has been instrumental in financing the trend toward state-of-the-art stadiums around the country.

People familiar with Selig's thinking also say the commissioner fears that putting a team in Washington would cannibalize part of the fan base of the Baltimore Orioles, who depend on Washington and its suburbs for more than 20 percent of their fans.

Selig declined to comment, other than to say no decision on Montreal's future has been made.

When it comes to sports, North Carolina has been on a hot streak in recent years. It has recruited three of the four major professional sports leagues in the last 11 years: the NBA Hornets and NFL Panthers, both in Charlotte, and the NHL Hurricanes, who play two hours away in Raleigh, N.C.

The state also is home to two of the most successful men's college basketball programs in the country: Duke University's Blue Devils and North Carolina's Tar Heels.

Now North Carolina wants a baseball team, too.

"It's not a matter of if we get a team, but when we get a team," said Carroll Gray, president of the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce. "We've done this drill before."

The city has several important allies, including Bank of America, a leader in sports finance and banker to one in three major sports teams, according to experts. The bank has financed facilities ranging from Washington's MCI Center to the Milwaukee Brewers' new stadium; it held a $53 million lien on Selig's Brewers (now run by Selig's daughter).

Bank of America Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Hugh McColl Jr. has publicly backed plans for a downtown arena in Charlotte, which was the world headquarters of NationsBank when it merged with San Francisco-based Bank of America late last year.

Bank of America, the largest commercial bank in the country, now is based in Charlotte.

"Part of our grand vision was bringing a major league baseball team to Charlotte at the appropriate time," said Edward J. Brown III, head of global capital markets for the bank. "Charlotte is a maturing market, and one we felt at some point in the future could be one of the cities that could support major league baseball."

Brown has strong ties to Yankees owner George Steinbrenner and occasionally sits in his box at Yankee Stadium, according to a news report in the Charlotte Observer. After the Yankees won the 1996 World Series, according to the Observer, Steinbrenner gave World Series rings to Brown, McColl and NationsBank President Ken Lewis.

Brown said he has had conversations with Selig about bringing baseball to Charlotte.

"We were just planting seeds with him," Brown said. He said Selig made no commitments.

Another likely ally in Charlotte's corner is Angelos. Angelos has said he opposes a baseball team in Washington at any cost, saying the Orioles serve the entire Baltimore-Washington-Northern Virginia market.

With Angelos and Selig in concert, it will be difficult for Washington or Northern Virginia to win the votes to locate a team here. Under baseball's rules, a team seeking to relocate must win three-quarters of the votes from owners inside its league and a majority of owners in the other league.

If the Expos were for sale, "Angelos would probably be our biggest ally," said Jeff Beaver, a NationsBank veteran before becoming the executive director of the Charlotte Regional Sports Commission.

Leading the Charlotte effort is businessman Don Beaver, who is not related to Jeff. Don Beaver, 59, is the millionaire owner of five minor league baseball teams and a minor shareholder (less than 10 percent) in the Pittsburgh Pirates. Beaver made his fortune in nursing homes and recently expanded into real estate.

Beaver's attempt to buy the Minnesota Twins and move them south last year failed when the team decided to stay in Minneapolis. Beaver and his investors now have their eyes on the Expos, whose attendance has been poor for years and who need a major stadium renovation to turn things around.

The team's owners have said they are trying to put together a plan to keep the Expos in Montreal, but the outlook is doubtful.

"If Montreal comes up [for sale] we will go after it full steam ahead," Beaver said.

Beaver has said he would locate the club in an expanded version of Knights Stadium, a 10,000-seat Class AAA ballpark he leases from York County, S.C., a few miles from Charlotte.

The stadium seating would be increased to 18,000 to 20,000 at a cost of about $3 million, according to Beaver. But experts say that would have to be temporary.

Jeff Beaver said bringing baseball to Charlotte would depend on putting a stadium in the city's downtown.

"With so many law firms and companies that have offices downtown, people would want to walk out their doors and go to the ballpark," Beaver said. "And they are going to want a state-of-the-art ballpark and they will want something really nice."

That means taxpayer help to build the stadium. Charlotte is already considering whether to build a new, downtown home for the NBA Hornets. The 10-year-old Charlotte Coliseum, located on the outskirts of the city, already is considered a relic.

Before the city considers adopting the Expos, "We've got a basketball situation to resolve first," Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory said.

McCrory also said he is concerned about the fate of baseball's small-market clubs. Many are financially strapped compared with the big revenue producers such as the Orioles and New York Yankees, who have income from local television contracts.

"The big issue for Charlotte is the revenue sharing, and how much the public would be asked for a share to build the stadium," McCrory said. "I have concerns about smaller-market teams and how they survive with the current baseball revenue sharing -- or lack of it."

A study financed by the Charlotte sports commission showed that the franchise could not survive unless a stadium were placed in downtown Charlotte, where the team would draw about 25,000 per game. The league-wide average attendance last season was 28,943, according to Team Marketing Report, which tracks sports team statistics.

Don Beaver has said the Expos could survive in Charlotte on an average of just under 25,000 fans per game.

Max Muhleman, who did the Charlotte study, said the metro area, which is expanding at the rate of 10 percent a year, may need to do more growing before it has the population base to support a baseball team.

"I'm not sure the planets are in alignment yet," said Muhleman.

The Charlotte metropolitan area has 1.3 million people, according to Market Statistics Inc. That number grows to 1.9 million when stretched to a 50-mile radius, 3.3 million at 75 miles and 5.7 million within 100 miles of the center of Charlotte.

North Carolina has about 7.4 million people in the state, according to Market Statistics.

The Washington metro area has about 4.6 million people. But when Baltimore and its environs are thrown in, the number grows to 7 million and stretches from northern Maryland down almost to Fredericksburg, Va., according to Market Statistics.

Washington has more wealth overall than Charlotte, which makes it easier for a team to sell pricey club seats or season tickets, although D.C. has five professional sports teams (the football Redskins, basketball Wizards and WNBA Mystics, hockey Capitals and D.C. United of Major League Soccer) to Charlotte's three (NFL, NBA, WNBA).

The Washington metro area has 46,977 households with income of $150,000 after payroll and property taxes, compared with 6,517 in Charlotte's metro area, according to Market Statistics.

Mark Rosentraub, associate dean at the University of Indiana School of Public and Environmental Affairs, said Duke and North Carolina tap Charlotte as a source of fund-raising revenue and support for their athletic teams -- putting even more pressure on the discretionary income of its citizens.

Charlotte is "pulled about as tight as they can get," Rosentraub said.

But Rosentraub said Bank of America could make a baseball team work if it wants to spend the money.

"Bank of America would have to sign a huge naming rights deal, and make a corporate effort to guarantee the sale of all the premium seating," Rosentraub said.

"If [Bank of America] says it's going to make it good . . . then the region may be able to afford all the teams they have."

CAPTION: BANK OF AMERICA: BIG MONEY IN CHARLOTTE (This graphic was not available)