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Chip Drago
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Mobile's Senior Bowl:
Bluff or Bye-bye?

By Chip Drago
Mobile Bay Times
Will Senior Bowl 2010 kick off in Tampa or, more to the point, anywhere other than Ladd-Peebles Stadium on Virginia Street in Mobile's Maysville community as it has for the past 59 years?

Maybe here, maybe not. But one thing's for sure, such talk gives the Senior Bowl leverage as it prepares to negotiate a new contract with local authorities. 

The Senior Bowl is about as likely to leave Mobile as the Bankhead Tunnel, but city boosters and area football fans should perhaps take cold comfort in that near certainty, according to a number of sources close to City Hall and the city's flagship football event.

It is possible, if again unlikely, that the game's title sponsor, Under Armour, the NFL's favor and prestige and perhaps some of the Senior Bowl staff could alight elsewhere to establish a post-season college football all-star game that, but for the name, is everything the Senior Bowl is -- a pre-draft player evaluation week; coaches' convention; a series of social event/charitable fund raisers; a mammoth community tailgate; and, almost an afterthought, a North-South or similar artificial splitting up of college gridiron standouts to compete for the first time, officially, as professionals.

In short, Mobile could be left holding an empty bag emblazoned with the Senior Bowl logo.

Where would that leave the Mobile Arts and Sports Association (MASA)-owned Senior Bowl, if many of the elements that made it special vanish?

In the event that the story in the Tampa Tribune is accurate, the Senior Bowl would either continue here in some pale imitation of its former glory or fold up Tent City and fade to black. Make no mistake: when it comes to a nationally prominent college all-star game featuring draft-eligible football players, the NFL is the dog and anything attached to it is the tail, whether it is the location, the title sponsor, the owner or the executive director. That is not to say the NFL wants to own the game. It prefers to participate as a highly-respected friend of the event. The NFL will stay outside the fray, according to Greg Aiello, an NFL senior vice president for public relations. 

"We really don't know anything about this," he said. "It's  not our game to move. (Senior Bowl president and CEO) Steve Hale says there are no plans to leave Mobile. We don't have any view on that. At any rate, we would defer comment to the Senior Bowl officials."

"The truth is that we have had no contact with the Tampa Sports Authority at all," said Hale. "It looks like there was a local writer at a board meeting and this got thrown out there. There were some statements that obviously he got from somebody. It didn't come out of thin air. Usually where there's smoke, there's fire."

Then again, false alarms are sounded all the time.

"Most years at his time we get inquiries (from interests of other cities) expressing interest in the Senior Bowl and because our contract has expired and not been renegotiated it leads to a lot of speculation that, in effect, we are a free agent and we are available," he said. "MASA is the only group that has the authority to change venues or to relocate the Senior Bowl."

Locally though, resentments and negotiating ploys are clearly in play with the expiration of the Senior Bowl's ten-year contractual obligation at Ladd-Peebles Memorial Stadium, as well as Under Armour's three-year deal as the game's title sponsor.

Football season is ended. Let the leverage season begin. Drive a hard bargain, settle accounts and even scores. The intensity of the competition may exceed anything seen on the field in recent Senior Bowl contests where the game itself is mostly for fun, business having been attended to during the week.

Consider the Tampa Tribune story that the Senior Bowl was leaving Mobile and offering the Tampa Sports Authority a right of first refusal before shopping itself elsewhere. Subsequent reports suggested that TSA actually may have met recently with Under Armour and not the Senior Bowl to discuss an arrangement.

Calls to Under Armour marketing executives Todd Montesano and Steve Battista were not immediately returned.

Although some Senior Bowl representatives said it was only "prudent" for the Senior Bowl to listen to offers in a contract year, Vic Lott, chairman of the board for the Mobile Arts and Sports Association which owns the Senior Bowl, issued a blistering statement after the "Senior Bowl in jeopardy" story got rolling.

"Like many, we have been astonished and disappointed by the firestorm of falsehoods and rumor mongering that has been spread in Mobile as a result of an erroneous story in The Tampa Tribune earlier this week," reads Lott's statement. "We did not start these rumors and do not intend to stoop to any finger-pointing contests or smear campaigns." 

MASA is comprised of local leaders including Lott, Mike Maitre, Billy Seifert, other bankers, executives, professionals and longtime Mobilians. They may sell Mobile's signature event. They may sell their mothers. Most outside observers with any local experience are skeptical. So the "Senior Bowl" is not being led to market by MASA, or at least not with intent to sell, but possibly to enhance and underscore value.

In papers it files in support of its standing as a tax-exempt organization, MASA states its mission with the Senior Bowl game to promote "the development and advancement of the city of Mobile" and raise money for various charities.

But either feelings are genuinely hurt or jockeying is going on in advance of contract negotiations.

"Steve didn't like the (semi-pro) Admirals; he didn't want the GMAC Bowl or USA football because he wants to be the big show in town," said City Council President Reggie Copeland. "In Tampa, the bowl would be a secondary event. If they get the East-West Shrine Game which they probably will, that should end this talk. Why would they need two college all-star bowl games? I don't think the Senior Bowl is going to Tampa. The MASA Board is too smart for that."

Nevertheless, planted in the public's mind as a strong possibility, the loss of the Senior Bowl represents a blow to civic pride with political repercussions in an election year. Many citizens, a/k/a voters, would frown upon officials who bungled retention of an annual Mobile mainstay that has existed here since before most of them were born.

As with any contract though, there are at least two parties to the agreement. If the public reaction is strongly in the Senior Bowl's corner, the greater the pressure on city officials to accede to the Senior Bowl's demands.

What are those demands? Why are Senior Bowl representatives being coy, noting the "prudence" of exploring their options? The city and stadium officials recognize the value of the game and do all that is reasonably within their power to insure the event's success. Or do they? There's the rub. What does the city do and what is enough? Opinions could differ, and apparently do.

For the past two years, the Senior Bowl has sought city funding, and this past year through new Mayor Sam Jones' highly-touted signature addition to municipal operations, an accountability initiative called "CitiSmart," which, among other things, reviews and assesses events in advance of funding or not funding them in a performance contract. Last year, the Senior Bowl requested $500,000, or $50,000 more than the mayor budgeted for the new and improved Gulf Coast Classic between Alabama State and Southern, quite possibly the biggest and certainly the latest bone to stick in the craw of Senior Bowl officials who reportedly feel taken for granted.

In asking the city for a show of support in the form of cash, the Senior Bowl got skunked both years.

As with other beggars at the gate, Hale then tried an end around, approaching City Council members who have the power to tweak and approve the budget and, indeed, did reduce the GCC appropriation to $275,000.

In the current fiscal year, the city has 81 performance contracts totaling more than $3.5 million. However, the figures do not include events funded through the city's strategic plan budget, such as BayFest, nor those to which the city is legally mandated to provide monetary support, activities and agencies usually related to public safety. 

When offered an opportunity to make his pitch for the Senior Bowl at a City Council finance committee meeting, according to City Councilwoman Connie Hudson who chairs the committee, Hale threw in his cards and walked out without making a request for Senior Bowl funding. Having sat through the meeting with feelings running high over funding for GCC, Hale may have seen the futility of pitching the Senior Bowl into the cauldron.

"After the mayor didn't recommend funding for the Senior Bowl, he (Hale) sat through two days of finance committee meetings and became agitated over what he heard," Hudson recalled. "He was given an opportunity to make his case for the Senior Bowl. At that point he declined to do so and left. What would've become of it (a request on behalf of the Senior Bowl to the finance committee), I don't know. I don't know what would've happened."

Hudson, who favored level funding of all performance contracts in the current budget year and voted against the GCC appropriation, said she completely understood Senior Bowl sentiment that the national exposure and economic impact it delivers for Mobile makes it worthy of city backing in all ways, financial and otherwise.

"I do not disagree with him on that point at all," she said. "I would really hate to see it (the loss of the game). It is a big deal in Mobile. It's really one of the top venues we have to offer as a community event. It might get lost in a city like Tampa." 

If Senior Bowl representatives felt slighted or wanted the city's financial support, they should have made it known to him, Jones suggested recently. Jones is a member of MASA and he's usually ringmaster at CitiSmart sessions, the pathway to performance contracts with the city.   

The city's stated, if not always practiced, policy toward performance contracts leans in the direction of nurturing fledgling events which need initial public funding, taxpayer fertilizer as it were, before blossoming into successful community events like ... well, like the Senior Bowl. The city certainly demonstrated that approach a decade ago when it agreed with an appropriation of $950,000 to become the title sponsor of the Mobile, Ala. Bowl, now the GMAC Bowl.

Another view, shared by many in City Hall itself, conflicts with the "nursery" approach to performance contracts, holding that events which demonstrate a return on the dollar should be favored while those whose numbers don't measure up should be allowed to die unmourned.

While the Senior Bowl might deserve city monies for its longstanding and substantial economic impact, a case that the Senior Bowl needs municipal funds is more problematic.

The latest tax records on file for non-profit MASA reflect net assets for the period ending March 31, 2008 of more than $3.1 million, including stocks and bonds worth at the time more than $750,000. Hale's compensation package is in the neighborhood of $250,000. MASA distributed during that tax period more than $200,000 to 20 charities, ranging from $30,000 to the USA Children's and Women's Hospital down to $75 to United Cerebral Palsey. Most of the charitable contributions were in $5,000-$10,000 amounts and recipients included Boys and Girls Clubs, Autism Society, the Mobile Symphony, Ballet and Opera, the Sheriff's Flotilla, Mercy Medical, Special Olympics, Drug Education Council, Child Advocacy Center, Mobile Association for the Blind, Mobile Association for Retarded Citizens, and the YMCA.

And not long ago MASA committed in the vicinity of $1 million to buy, renovate and furnish an 1890's-era building on Dauphin Street across from Bienville Square. The three-story, 6,000-square-foot building at the corner of Dauphin and St. Emanuel streets houses the Senior Bowl offices and will feature a Senior Bowl Hall of Fame museum on the ground floor.
    
So which is it? Nurture the babies or reward the winners? Different city officials adopt either, sometimes both, stances depending on the event. For example, City Councilman Fred Richardson was as strong as anyone in the "nurture" camp when it came to funding the Gulf Coast Classic, projected to evolve into an annual "must do" football contest/attraction between Alabama State and Southern for their fans, but almost in the same breath he praised BayFest for the hugely successful 2008 festival and pledged to support increased public funding of the 2009 downtown music celebration.

Richardson was unfazed about the possible loss of the Senior Bowl and its annual $2 million budget to another city.

"I say if another city can beat providing the Senior Bowl a free facility with millions spent in upgrading the facility for them, then so be it," he said.

"Whether there is posturing going on or not, I think that the city of Mobile should provide the Senior Bowl some level of funding -- just like we do for other events that provide a good return on our investment," said City Councilwoman Gina Gregory

Jones' budgeting of the 2008 Gulf Coast Classic for a $450,000 allocation, a breath-taking leap from its 2007 appropriation of $40,000, likely lit the fuse for the present rift between City Hall and the Senior Bowl. After many hard words, the City Council throttled back to a $275,000 allocation. In its early going, the Mobile, Ala. Bowl, now the GMAC Bowl, received substantial sums from the city. To suggest that the GCC dust-up and the other bowl game's history linger in the memory of Senior Bowl officials would not be a stretch.

But that is not all. Not only has the Senior Bowl been played in Mobile for 59 straight years, it has been played in the same stadium which is another way to say that the facilities, regardless of improvements and renovations, is still not a gleaming, modern sports complex on the order of, say, Raymond James Stadium in Tampa. The city has spent considerable money to address the concerns of the Senior Bowl and the National Football League, maybe most notably more than $800,000 to install an artificial playing surface that allows the practices and evaluations to take place in an environment that meets NFL standards. Nevertheless, no matter how much lip stick they put on the ol' girl, Ladd Stadium is still old enough to draw a social security check.    

The Senior Bowl wants more sky boxes and greater control of those boxes. The city figures since it is paying for the boxes it has primary standing. All this while, the fledging University of South Alabama football Jaguars favor more rudimentary improvements and chairback seating. USA launched its football program with the full-throated encouragement of the city, seemingly to the chagrin of some Senior Bowl reps who once again felt unappreciated.  

Also, the Senior Bowl wants more "hop to it" out of the stadium management when it expresses a concern or a desire. The Senior Bowl wants to be embraced for the exciting, right-here-in-Mobile national spectacle that it has become in 59 years of teeing up the pigskin in the Port City.

Joining the MASA board as its youngest member in the early 1980's, Maitre now sits as the eldest trustee. He has also served as chairman of the board for Ladd Stadium, a position he no longer holds.

"I think we've got to get along better with the Ladd Stadium Board," said Maitre. "I was the first chairman for 10 years. It may have changed a little bit since I was chairman of it, but back in those days we did whatever the Senior Bowl wanted or needed. I don't know whether they've got all the events they want now or whatever. Sometimes we don't feel as welcome as we'd like to feel."

More hugs, no more hedges, use of sky boxes are important, but not overriding, issues.  

The story of the Senior Bowl's possible exit from Mobile and its long history here broke on St. Patrick's Day, leading some wags to suggest that the timing was appropriate because the squabble would most assuredly be traced back to the green. 

One insider with ties to the game from just about all angles said he would give his unbridled views if granted anonymity.

"The Senior Bowl had a sweet deal, no rent and no reimbursement for the stadium's actual expenses, power bill, clean-up, security, all of that," he said. "And it's been that way for 10 years. What happened was Hale's feelings got hurt because the city gave money to the Gulf Coast Classic and has been bending over backward for South Alabama. He asked for a bunch of money last year and they turned him down."

"Who pays rent out there?" Hale asked.

Another City Hall insider said the Senior Bowl's request for funding stalled at the starting gate because MASA declined to submit a detailed financial statement on the game, its assets and liabilities. However, as a non-profit organization, MASA must report its financial dealings to federal authorities in a category requiring public disclosure.

"Do you find it strange as I do that every year since he's (Hale) been here selling out the game has been his top priority," the well-versed source said. "He really pushed that. He never wanted not to have a sellout. He took great pride in that. Then this year there's no effort to sell it out. Advertising was lacking. Remember in the past how there would always be a "only 500 tickets left, only 200 tickets left" countdown as kickoff got closer? Does it serve his purposes not to have a sellout in a contract year? I don't know. But I find it odd. A tactic to get city funding? An exit strategy?"

If MASA/Senior Bowl is window shopping for a new home or even angling for more favorable terms with the city, Hale himself volunteered an observation that would undercut the value of the Tampa rumor to either end. As nice as Raymond James Stadium is, the NFL prefers a suitable but neutral and non-NFL venue to avoid favoring any one franchise over the others, he noted.   

The NFL wants to project an image that it is merely one of the guests invited to a party, but in reality when it comes to issues that truly concern the NFL, the better, maybe overly harsh, analogy might be closer to a ventriloquist and his puppet.

"With the Senior Bowl deal, the NFL is the key," the well-positioned source said. "If the NFL called and said, 'you know, we're not interested in Mobile,' the game would go away. MASA won't sell it or give it away. There's too much equity there. Either Steve Hale is trying to bully the city into giving him money or the NFL has told Hale, 'we don't like it in Mobile, we want you to shop it around.' If I had to bet, I'd bet it was the first one. The NFL wants a place to conduct practices, have a coaches' convention and enough hotel rooms and conference rooms to conduct interviews for players and coaches and Mobile provides all of that for them."

"The city gave them the field turf at Ladd which is the official surface approved by the NFL Players Association," he said. "And now we've got first rate hotels in downtown, the renovated Riverview and the brand new Battle House. We give them everything they want."

Maitre acknowledged the installation of the artificial turf as "a big thing that had to be done."

"Ladd and the city bit the bullet and did that so practices could take place at the stadium," he said.

"I think we just had our feelings hurt that everybody is getting all this money for these other games and we don't get any money and money's tight nowadays and it's tight for the Senior Bowl," Maitre said. "The Senior Bowl truly needs to give them a big bang. This is the NFL. This is first class and you have to entertain them royally. The food and the parties have to be the highest quality. You want them to say how nice it is. That costs money."

While the city has provided lots of in-kind support, Mobile County provided $100,000 from its marketing account for the 2009 game as well as advancing the game its anticipated 2010 appropriation of $100,000. Additionally, the county commission was set to vote Monday on a $150,000 appropriation to assist in establishing the Senior Bowl's Hall of Fame Museum. 

With the Senior Bowl, taxpayers could rest assured their money was wisely allocated, said Maitre.

"Hale does a terrific job," he said. "Vic Lott does a fabulous job. He a real professional guy. He runs it like it's supposed to be run. Seifert is our treasurer. He watches the money like you wouldn't believe. We are strongly oriented to this community and believe in it. We don't want to go away. On the other hand, we've got to be able to put the game on first class like it's been done for 59 years."

While some find Hale abrasive, he is invaluable to the success of the Senior Bowl, according to Maitre, because his skills and contacts could not easily be replaced.  

"It's a tough damn job," said Maitre. "He has a great relationship with every head coach in the country. He is welcome in anybody's office. He does a fantastic job. Just pick up the phone and call any one of them. They'll tell you he is a first class guy. He wants to stay in Mobile. We all want to stay in Mobile. On the other hand, we've got to have other things to make it first class."

Resentments cut both ways. City Council members have noted that the city was not listed as a sponsor in some Senior Bowl matters this year and invitations to all Senior Bowl functions were not extended, unlike in previous years.  

"We just want cooperation," said Maitre. "That's the bottom line. We just want cooperation from the Ladd Board. We want to feel like they want us. We haven't heard much from the Ladd board saying 'we want y'all.'"

When city, stadium and bowl representatives sit down to negotiate a new lease, at least one participant gives the impression of being in the eye of the storm.

George Finkbohner, the attorney for the Ladd-Peebles Board of Directors, was mystified by the uproar over the future of the game. He pointed out that he sent MASA a letter almost four months ago, noting the expiration of the lease agreement and looking forward to successfully continuing the relationship upon meeting to negotiate a new lease. It is routine legal work that happens every single working day, he suggested.   

"As far as I'm concerned this is just a normal sort of thing: a lease ends, you negotiate and enter into a new lease and that's where we are," he said. "It seems like a win-win situation. The Senior Bowl is great for Mobile, for the city. The city has been great for the Senior Bowl. My board has done exactly what it should have done: notify them that the lease is up and it is time to negotiate a new lease. I really don't see why this is a big story."

MASA is scheduled to meet at 9 a.m. Thursday at the Senior Bowl office.