The Title They Want Is `Owner'

Why would an aging rebel, an ultrawealthy investor, a chain-restaurant magnate, and a member of the nation's most famous brewing family want to plop as much as $200 million into new ventures that may not make a dime until the 21st century? To be owners of the first new National Football League franchises to be awarded in 19 years. The NFL plans to choose which two cities and ownership groups will win the prizes in the fall. Here's a look at the owner wannabes at the three top contenders: Baltimore, Charlotte, N.C., and St. Louis.

George Young, the New York Giants general manager, hadn't seen Leonard "Boogie" Weinglass in more than 30 years. The Boogie he knew was a troublesome Baltimore teenager who had been expelled from one school and who, despite athletic promise, was barely improving at the high school where Young coached football. Young recalls collaring young Weinglass selling chances in football pools outside a packed gym.

But when Young saw Weinglass at an NFL meeting in Phoenix last year, the Giants' GM was nothing but gracious. Weinglass is now a multimillionaire living in Aspen, Colo., on income from his 1,435-store retailing chain, Maryland-based Merry-Go-Round Enterprises Inc., which sprang from an Atlanta hippie boutique in the 1960s. He's leading investors who would bring NFL football back to Baltimore, a city whose heart broke when Robert Irsay shipped his Colts to Indianapolis one April night in 1984.

Weinglass would add flamboyance to the league. Still sporting a ponytail (gray now that he's 51), he was the model for the rakish Boogie played by Mickey Rourke in the 1982 movie Diner. The film helped make the career of filmmaker, lifelong friend, and NFL investment partner Barry Levinson.

Weinglass now backs aspiring pro boxers, oversees a foundation that aids poor kids, and hangs out at Boogies Diner, his plush restaurant/clothes shop in Aspen. Chairman of Merry-Go-Round, he leaves the daily work to CEO Michael D. Sullivan, another partner in the Baltimore effort. Weinglass would own a half-interest in the football team.

But he has a rival: Malcolm Glazer, a 65-year-old investor from Palm Beach, Fla., whose holdings range from shopping centers in 20 states to an oil-services outfit founded by former President George Bush to a stake in the parent of Houlihan's restaurants.

Glazer's NFL partners would be his kids. Two sons, who live in Baltimore, would play key roles, and Glazer believes this will help his cause. "We are what the NFL is looking for," he says, "a single-family ownership" that can meet a team's financial needs. Indeed, his family owns or controls $1 billion in assets. "We can write the check, and there's not another group that has a family that can," he says.

For Jerome J. Richardson, who's trying to put Charlotte on the NFL map, becoming an owner would bring him full circle: Richardson helped the Baltimore Colts win the 1959 NFL title by catching a touchdown pass from Johnny Unitas. But he soon quit to build a fast-food stand in Spartanburg, S.C. That outlet eventually grew into Flagstar Cos., the nation's fourth-largest food-service company and owner of the Denny's chain.

Richardson, 56, recently took bold steps to defuse a ruinous crisis at Denny's. Charges of racial bias have been leveled by many blacks, including six Secret Service agents who are now suing. In response, Richardson signed a contract with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People calling for random tests of restaurants and more minority managers. But it's too early to say the Denny's crisis has passed.

For the NFL franchise, Richardson has mustered strong community support. All 102 luxury skyboxes in a proposed stadium sold out within a week after bidding opened on July 1--at prices from $40,000 to $240,000 a year. Also, in a unique financing twist, fans have already ponied up cash for more than 41,000 so-called Permanent Seat Licenses, which give them the right to buy season tickets annually, at from $600 to $5,400.

Even as the estimated entry fee for a new franchise soared to the current $200 million, Richardson believes that the venture is a civic trust. Why? He's convinced the Carolinas should be considered a major-league area.

James Busch Orthwein's biggest edge in his bid to bring the NFL back to St. Louis may be his middle name. As one of the largest shareholders in and a director of Anheuser-Busch Cos., he's deeply involved in one of professional sports' biggest advertisers. What's more, his town offers the NFL a promising TV market and is building a $258 million domed stadium. St. Louis is "a virtual lock," according to Fred Edelstein, edi-tor of the Edelstein Pro Football Letter.

In fact, Orthwein, 69, already roams the NFL's suites. He spared the league major embarrassment last year by taking control of the struggling New England Patriots from Victor Kiam, the financially ailing former owner. However, to comply with a league rule against multiple ownership, Orthwein would have to sell the Pats, and he's laying plans to do so.

The St. Louis group boasts the best NFL cachet in the expansion derby: Walter Payton, the former Chicago Bears star running back. Orthwein has promised that Payton will represent St. Louis at league meetings. Payton would be the NFL's first black owner (though Weinglass and Richardson also plan on minority partners).

Some recent maneuvers show off Orthwein's marketing savvy. He redesigned the team logo and moved the Patriots from last to fifth in sales of NFL-licensed goods. Fans cheered when he hired Bill Parcells as head coach, a two-time Super Bowl winner with the New York Giants. Orthwein comes by his marketing sense honestly: For years he ran the ad agency now known as D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles Inc.

Two other cities, Jacksonville, Fla., and Memphis, also remain in the hunt. While market size makes them long shots, each boasts noteworthy NFL wannabes, too. In Jacksonville, shoe magnate J. Wayne Weaver has teamed with Jeb Bush, the former President's son. And in Memphis, the owners would include cotton king William B. Dunavant Jr. Considering the stakes, this battle is sure to go down to the last seconds on the game clock.

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