After more than a decade of foot dragging and idle procrastination, the NFL finally appears to be getting serious about the idea of expansion.
Now the question no longer seems to be will the NFL expand, but when, and, more critically to Baltimore interests, where.
When league owners convene in Hawaii next week for their annual spring meetings, they probably will correct the mistake of putting a Super Bowl in Arizona. They will reconsider the bad joke that instant replay has become. And they will engage in a conversation, however brief, about the blessings of adding two new teams.
But there is not likely to be any big expansion news coming out of paradise, league spokesman Joe Browne said in a conference call with reporters yesterday.
Instead, the machinery for expansion is more likely to surface next May in Minnesota at another league meeting.
By that time, the league office will have completed its research into the financial aspects of expansion -- the only force that can move the normally inert owners to expand.
Among the points the league office is looking at:
* The cost of an expansion franchise. It is now being gauged between $125 million and $150 million.
* How the expansion fee will be paid, whether it be in one lump sum or over a period of time.
* The new market vs. old market debate. That is, should the league add one old and one new, or two new, or two old?
* How expansion will impact on realignment.
* What television impact there will be of the competing cities.
It is worth noting that this work is being done by league office personnel, and not the realignment and expansion committee, which has met only twice since being appointed a year ago. Clearly, commissioner Paul Tagliabue is the ramrod for expansion.
Just as clearly, some owners are sending mixed signals about it. Count Kansas City Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt among those who feel the league must first resolve its labor strife before even considering expansion.
"Expansion has got to come after a labor agreement or solution," Hunt said this week. "It wouldn't be intelligent for a city that's a potential franchise to get into a situation and not know what the ground rules would be."
What's more, Hunt feels expansion needs to come two years after a collective bargaining agreement is reached.
At league meetings last October in Chicago, Buffalo's Ralph Wilson and Chicago's Ed McCaskey expressed similar sentiments.
On the other side of the coin is Philadelphia owner Norman Braman, a member of the new breed and an expansion hawk.
"My position is we should proceed as the commissioner outlined," Braman said. "The commissioner has not said the collective bargaining agreement is the problem. It's a problem. But I don't think it should stop the wheels of expansion.
"[Tagliabue's] commitment to expand has not changed."
Which raises the question of timing. Tagliabue originally targeted 1993 as the season to add two teams. But there is some sentiment for backing off a year.
"I'm of the opinion expansion could logically fall in the 1994 season because of the break in the TV contract," said Fran Murray, who is a minority owner of the New England Patriots and a guiding force in St. Louis' bid to regain a team. "That would be a time when you can have realignment, too. To me, '94 is more realistic."
A week ago in an interview with the Boston Globe, Pittsburgh president Dan Rooney said the nation's economy has affected the expansion picture. He said he favored expansion, but not at the present time.
The NFL last expanded by two teams in 1976.
The issue of where the league will expand, meanwhile, is impossible to assess. At least seven expansion hopefuls will make the trip to Hawaii to meet and mingle -- Baltimore, Charlotte, Jacksonville, Memphis, Oakland, Sacramento and St. Louis. Baltimore, Charlotte and St. Louis are believed to be the top three candidates, although not necessarily in that order.
The longer expansion drags on, the more chance new cities can emerge. Earlier this month, a new group of Sacramento businessmen said they were prepared to go after a team. Former San Francisco 49ers coach Bill Walsh might become a partner in that group. Former Redskins quarterback Eddie LeBaron already is.
With NFL expansion, there is never a lack of interested parties.