CHICAGO-- FOR BALTIMORE and all the other aspiring expansion cities around the country, there are new reasons today to wonder if the NFL ever will add more teams.
Like the rising cost of gas.
Like the crisis in the Middle East.
Like the ever-cautious attitudes of the bottom-line owners.
There were red flags galore at the two-day fall owners meeting this week. At least a few owners openly questioned the wisdom of expanding in today's economy, with today's unique problems. One privately hinted expansion was not close.
Then there was Paul Tagliabue, the NFL commissioner who wants to be a midwife to expansion but hasn't quite figured out how to pull it off.
Tagliabue has been force-feeding the issue to the owners since taking over for Pete Rozelle last October.
But even he seemed to back off a bit after delivering a report of his realignment and expansion committee to the owners on Tuesday.
That's when he introduced gas pricing and the nation's soft economy as new factors in the expansion equation. "Those types of considerations are very important if you're talking about expanding a business," he said.
With the NFL, there's always a reason not to expand. In the early '80s, the USFL was the convenient excuse. Then the collective bargaining agreement became the crutch (even though the league did not have a CBA the last time it expanded in 1976, either).
Now it's gas and the Mideast crisis. What's next, the price of eggs and Sunday traffic?
Between meetings, Tagliabue said expansion by two teams in 1993 was still a realistic goal. He said there was no opposition to it.
But there is no certainty to it, either. The owners who are dragging their feet on expansion appear to be old guard types who like status quo and those $32 million checks they get in TV revenue each year. The owners who seem most interested are the new breed guys who invested heavily in their franchise and are looking for some quick relief in the form of a couple of $100 million expansion franchise checks.
One case in point is Buffalo owner Ralph Wilson, who thinks the league must have a collective bargaining agreement in place and other issues resolved before expanding. How many owners feel as he does? "I think most of them do," Wilson said.
Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, in his second year in the NFL, said this week his position hadn't changed: "I'm still in favor of expansion."
For now, Tagliabue says the reluctant owners want more answers.
"Our evaluation of expansion is more intensive, more in depth," he said. "I was asked about the price of a franchise [on Tuesday]. We have to get into that in depth rather than making assumptions.
"Clubs want us to get beyond the point of making assumptions and give them our best estimates on what the future holds."
Does it hold another old guard-new breed battle like the one that marred Tagliabue's selection a year ago? Wilson admits there's still a little of that left, but suggested "it will evaporate."
Gene McHale of American Sports Associates, a consulting firm employed by Baltimore, has talked to many of the owners about the parameters of expansion. And he doesn't think there's a wall separating the two camps.
"I don't think it's a wall," he said. "I think it's a line drawn in pencil that you can erase."
Tagliabue is trying to erase it. He is trying to get everybody to see the wisdom of expansion. But based on two days in Chicago, it appears he will need a rather large eraser.