With report on NFL expansion due, hopeful cities await grades

October 08, 1990|By Mark Hyman

Let's see, what do we really know about the National Football League's plans for expansion?

We know there are tentative plans, announced last summer by NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue, to add two or more teams for the 1993 season.

We know the cities that are chosen will be in North America. (In the ultra-secret world of NFL expansion, this actually is considered a scoop.)

We can be fairly certain that whatever cities are chosen, others will complain that they have been overlooked unfairly and will call immediately for the league to expand again by between two and 24 more teams.

We still can't be certain when or if Baltimore will be an NFL city again. But, patience. There's reason to expect that news is coming and, more remarkably, that it is coming soon.

At an NFL owners meeting in Chicago on Oct. 16-17, the 28 team owners are expected to receive a report from the realignment and expansion committee.

The contents of the report aren't known, but there are indications that what is said will prompt serious discussion among owners. The clearest evidence of that is a request of some representatives of expansion-minded cities that they not attend the meeting, as many of them have for the past five years or so.

According to officials from potential expansion cities, the owners want to discourage such visits so that they can conduct their business in greater privacy, and without the distractions of white wine and small talk, which always seem to be in inexhaustible supply in the hospitality suites of the expansion hopefuls.

Beyond the October meeting, the owners' timetable is less certain. By March 1991, it's expected they will have formed an expansion committee, the group that will make final recommendations to the full complement of owners. By next October, the owners are expected to be ready to bring expansion to a vote.

While the owners weigh the vital questions, including the most vital -- where is an NFL team likely to reap the biggest profits? -- there is a whir of activity in various cities around the country.

What is new on the expansion grapevine? Has Baltimore's position strengthened or weakened in the past several years? An expansion primer follows:

BALTIMORE

Four years ago, Herbert J. Belgrad thought he could deliver the St. Louis Cardinals to Baltimore, and said so. Cardinals owner Bill Bidwill moved his team to Phoenix instead, and Belgrad learned a lesson. Now he tempers his optimism with an equal dose of realism.

"The one guarantee I can make to fans is that there will be no expansion committee better prepared," said Belgrad, who is chairman of the Maryland Stadium Authority, as well as the state's liaison with NFL officials.

The latest development here is that work has begun on the formal proposal that ultimately will go to the expansion committee. Last month, Belgrad met with three key consultants whose work will shape that proposal. They are the financial experts, Public Financial Management, Inc.; the stadium designers, Hellmuth, Obata & Kassabaum Inc.; and the sports management consultants, American Sports Associates.

Gene McHale, president of American Sports Associates, will have an interesting assignment: to anticipate the criteria that will be used by the expansion committee to measure Baltimore against St. Louis, for example. McHale said he believes the owners will be looking closely at "four or five key areas," including an acceptable stadium, a viable ownership group, an ability to sell out regular seats, club seating and luxury boxes and, of extreme importance, a city that will give the league added leverage in its future negotiations with TV networks.

ST. LOUIS Before Bidwill moved the Cardinals to Phoenix, he repeatedly asked local leaders to devise a plan for a new stadium. When those plans failed to materialize, he left. Four years later, St. Louis has an elaborate and costly ($250 million) plan.

Financed publicly, the downtown stadium will have a seating capacity of about 70,000, more than 100 luxury suites and a hard (as opposed to fabric) roof. The building also will have a drop ceiling that can lowered to 40 feet, so the stadium can be used as an annex to the adjacent Cervantes Convention Center.

The leading (and only) group of investors that has appeared is headed by Fran Murray, a 49-percent owner of the New England Patriots. Others who are chipping in include James Worthwein, a member of the mighty Busch family, and Walter Payton, the former great NFL running back.

Spiffy stadium and high-profile owners aside, St. Louis is offering another powerful lure -- incredibly low rent. Reportedly, the new owners would pay only $250,000 per year to play in the new stadium (the Orioles, in contrast, paid more than $5 million to use Memorial Stadium last year) and most of the proceeds from the lucrative leasing of luxury boxes.

CHARLOTTE

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