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Why the Colts Left Baltimore

NFL owners did nothing to stop the move

Cincinnati Bengals v Indianapolis Colts Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The Baltimore Colts were a well-loved team in the National Football League (NFL) with a deep-rooted fan base. The mayor loved the team, the fans were consumed by it, the Governor was a big fan and the NFL needed Baltimore to have a pro football team. The club had a winning history in the league going to four championship games while taking home three NFL titles. The franchise was home to arguably the greatest NFL quarterback of all-time Johnny Unitas.

Hall of Famer Johnny Unitas

With all of this, why then did the franchise move to Indianapolis?

The truth? Because of the Oakland Raiders.

Throughout the annals of the history of the NFL, the team owners voted on everything that involved not only the league but also franchise matters. In 1943, Cleveland Rams owner Dan Reeves wanted to relocate his club to Los Angeles, but the owners voted no. After the 1945 season, Reeves brought the matter up again and this time he was approved. So, the Cleveland Rams became the Los Angeles Rams after the owners voted yes on the relocation matter.

Enter Al Davis - owner of the Raiders.

Throughout the middle 1970’s, the Rams repeatedly tried to get the stadium they were renting - the Los Angeles Coliseum - to upgrade and modernize. The Los Angeles Coliseum Commission (LACC) owned the stadium and performed only minimal upgrades although the field was always in top condition. When the Rams moved again to Anaheim, California, the LACC filed a lawsuit against the NFL. At the time, league bylaws required that any relocation by an existing club to an area which already had a team required a unanimous vote by the owners. This blocked any existing franchise the opportunity to relocate to Los Angeles or any other city. The Rams were not in favor of another club moving into their domain and would certainly block any move.

The LACC maintained that a unanimous vote was in violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act; which eliminates one business from exerting complete control within a certain market.

Yeh, yeh. What does all of this have to do with the Colts relocating? Well, everything.

The NFL owners met in a special session to discuss the lawsuit. The league’s commissioner, Pete Rozelle, offered a bylaw amendment which required only a three-quarter positive vote; to which the amendment passed.

Davis himself was having issues with his own stadium deal which was set to expire in 1979. Oakland was the second smallest NFL city, and Davis thought that the direction of television broadcasts was going the direction of pay TV. With this new venture, the larger cities would garner the most funds and Davis did not want to be stuck at the bottom of this cash tier.

When the offer from the City of Oakland was rescinded regarding stadium improvements and such, in March of 1980 Davis abruptly announced that the Raiders would be moving to Los Angeles and become the new tenants of the Coliseum. This brought the Raiders immediately into the LACC’s lawsuit as a co-plaintiff. The NFL owners met again and voted against Oakland’s relocation to Los Angeles.

End of story regarding the Raiders moving south as far as the NFL was concerned. The biggest issue was not that the Raiders were moving, but that Davis was about to move his team without the league’s consent. A restraining order granted to the NFL prevented the franchise from moving for two years.

And the Colts? At this time, they were still playing in Baltimore.

In May of 1982, the courts ruled in favor of the LACC as well as the Raiders. Although the league appealed, the Raiders immediately relocated and began playing home games in Los Angeles. The following year, the club won Super Bowl XVIII as the “Los Angeles Raiders.”

In the end of this entire debacle, the NFL settled with $20 million awarded to the Raiders.

With the lawsuit victory of the Raiders, the NFL had a new stance with relocation of teams. It concluded that team matters were for each team to decide - not the league.

Enter the Colts.

Robert Irsay had owned the Colts since 1972. He wanted a better stadium deal with the City of Baltimore plus extensive renovations since Memorial Stadium was an aged facility built in 1921. The stadium was considered to be the ashcan of the NFL. And he wanted the city to pay for the improvements to which they offered little to his demands. The Colts had come off five losing seasons and then was rejected by first overall pick John Elway. Attendance was down and the franchise had to endure the exploits of quarterback Art Schlichter (who would be suspended for gambling). Improvements to the stadium were needed and were small by NFL standards.

Memorial Stadium 1950s

All around things just didn’t look good in Baltimore.

Throughout the league, though, new stadiums were popping up. Texas Stadium opened in Dallas in 1971, Arrowhead Stadium (76,416 capacity) was built in 1972 in Kansas City, 1975 opened the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans, the 80,242 seat Giants Stadium set off the year 1976 in New Jersey, while Buffalo crowned the 71,870 seat Rich Stadium in 1973. All of these new digs offered comfortable seating, larger and nicer locker rooms, increased restroom facilities, spectacular scoreboards and video replay screens, better food areas, and most importantly – luxury skybox suites.

Skyboxes allow fans and corporate entities the ability to elevate their game involvement. Air-conditioned booths are catered with exclusive bathroom facilities, larger seating, TV replays, parking vouchers, different menus than regular stadium fare, open bar, special entrance points and lounge areas not available to regular ticket holders. And teams are allowed to charge a premium for this game experience and keep all of the proceeds.

Profits from almost everything in the NFL is split equally amongst all franchises. Although the gate is split 60-40 (with the home team making the greater split), teams do not share revenues generated within the confines of the stadium. Yes, all proceeds are split when a patron buys a jersey or a hat (regardless of team), but concessions, programs, stadium advertising, parking and skybox suites are all examples of revenue streams for the home team’s coffers. A club with zero skyboxes is at a financial disadvantage than another that has 67 suites priced at $800,000 for a single season.

With Irsay’s patience exhausted about the Baltimore stadium issues, during the 1984 season, he began dialogue with several cities about the possibility of the Colts moving. He had trips to Jacksonville, Phoenix, Indianapolis, Memphis and Oakland. Upon his arrival from a trip to Phoenix, he was met by Governor William Schaefer and several media members. Irsay told them at the time he had no intention of moving the team.

Rozelle and Irsay later convened for a meeting. In the minutes of this meeting, it was noted that Irsay stated he would like to move his team to Phoenix and wished to “have the blessing of the other owners.” The NFL realized they did not want another costly court battle, and the minutes concluded that it would be out-of-the-question to treat a possible Colts relocation as a league issue.

This gave Irsay a green light without the consent of the other owners.

Talks with Phoenix fell through and Jacksonville was too small of a market for Irsay. The same stadium issues he was involved with in Baltimore were some of the same problems in Oakland as well as Memphis’ timeworn Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium. He toured the brand new 60,127-seat Hoosier Dome in downtown Indianapolis in February and came away very impressed. He then made his decision to relocate to Indiana but was secretive about his decision.

Meanwhile, the City of Baltimore tried to get the Maryland state legislature to condemn the Colts franchise in order for another group to step up and keep the franchise in the city. What the state legislature did instead was to pass a provision of eminent domain on March 27. This was designed to legally bind the Colts to the City of Baltimore. All that was needed was the governor’s signature.

Upon hearing this information, Irsay realized he had to act quickly. At noon on March 28, he called up the Indianapolis-based Mayflower Transit Company. About a dozen moving vans arrived at nine that evening to cart off a portion of the club’s belongings until early the next morning amidst a cold, snowy night. The timing was horrible as most franchises were in pre-draft mode and yet here were all the coaches and front office involved in a major move. To complicate matters, the team chose a less than favorable traveling route via backroads. The fear was that if it was readily known what was going on, state troopers might pull over the moving vans and possibly impound the Colt’s belongings.

Colts’ owner Robert Irsay at Indianapolis Colts press conference

And with that, the Baltimore Colts became the Indianapolis Colts. What the mayor and the city council of Baltimore did was sue to condemn the franchise anyway, but lost in court. With the timely move regarding the State of Maryland’s provision of eminent domain, the franchise had left before the document could be enacted as law as the Colts were longer located in the state.

Today, if you visit the Colts’ headquarters on West 56th Street in Indianapolis, behind a door with a digital security lock there are various game-worn jerseys, signed footballs, historical artifacts, championship paraphernalia and two Super Bowl trophies.

And sitting next to all of this fabled history and valuable assets is a toy 1/64 scale Mayflower truck.

Barry Shuck is a pro football historical writer and a member of the Professional Football Researcher’s Association.