Sports financing sounds glamorous.

It brings to mind images of bankers lounging in luxury boxes, smoking Cuban cigars with team owners. Or executives picking over a buffet table in the company of superstar professional athletes.

But George L. Cole, a sports lending specialist at Charlotte, N.C.-based First Union Corp., deflates those images. "It's overrated," he said in a recent interview.

"Sure, maybe you get to sit in an owner's box a few times a year," he said, "but you can do that with other clients as well. I'll put it this way: I don't spend a lot of time in locker rooms."

Mr. Cole, 38, is director of First Union's media and communications finance division, which includes sports financing. He spends much of his time working with professional sports teams, handling their financing needs - a position many would envy.

And there may be more of these jobs at large banks in the near future. All the major professional sports leagues have been expanding in recent years, adding teams in new markets, and that puts a premium on the sort of expertise that Mr. Cole is developing.

But to the nine-year veteran of First Union, it's not the sports end of the work that is exciting.

"The fun part is that it's become a more entrepreneurial vehicle for the owners," he said, "and the opportunities to make money in this business continue to grow."

In the past, most professional teams were run as, in effect, "cultural icons" in their cities, with owners viewed as their caretakers. Today, sports organizations are much more bottom-line-oriented, Mr. Cole said.

This shift was manifested by the highly controversial franchise shifts made by some well-established professional teams in recent years. For example, the National Football League's Cleveland Browns relocated to Baltimore last year and are now known as the Ravens. Baltimore had lost its NFL Colts to Indianapolis in the 1980s.

Knowing about sports and having a passion for them are irrelevant in his line of work, Mr. Cole said.

"If you play ball in high school, that has no impact on the business side of the game," he said. "As a financier, you're relying on the capabilities of ownership and management."

And Mr. Cole said emphatically that the success of a team on the field doesn't correlate with its financial fortunes - a notion that seems to defy common sense.

The reason is that teams today rely on several revenue sources - such as media contracts, advertising, and seat licensing - besides ticket sales, which tend to fluctuate with the team's quality.

Sports financing also demands nontraditional commercial bank expertise, Mr. Cole said. For example, First Union arranged the private placement of a $60 million bond issue last year to help finance the acquisition by two families of a National Basketball Association expansion team, the Vancouver Grizzlies.

In that deal, First Union acted as financial adviser, considering an array of financing options in addition to a straight loan, Mr. Cole said.

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