Kona, Hawaii -- The potential expansion cities will form the stag line at the National Football League's annual March dance this week.
They all want the league to know that they're available.
Even though commissioner Paul Tagliabue asked the various cities not to open hospitality suites or hold receptions the way they have in the past, representatives from at least seven cities will be on hand this week for the league's annual March meetings. This is the only week-long meeting the league conducts all year.
"We decided we had to have a presence here," said Henry Butta, a member of the three-man Baltimore delegation who arrived last night. "This is no time not to show up at an owners meeting."
Mark Richardson, the son of former Colt Jerry Richardson who is heading the Charlotte, N.C., expansion effort, said: "I think not showing up at this point in time would generate a lot questions. A lot of people would ask why someone wouldn't go when things are starting to heat up."
Besides Baltimore and Charlotte, St. Louis, Memphis, Tenn.; Jacksonville, Fla.; Oakland, Calif., and Sacramento, Calif., are going to be represented.
If you include San Antonio, Texas, which is constructing a domed stadium, those cities are expected to be vying for the next two expansion teams. Birmingham, Ala.; Portland, Ore., and Orlando, Fla., also could get in the race along with Montreal, but they would be considered long shots.
The cities hoping to get teams like to think they finally can see a light at the end of the tunnel, although they can't be sure.
"I'm hoping for a positive signal this week," said Pepper Rodgers, the former coach who is leading the Memphis expansion effort.
The league has been sending out conflicting signals on expansion.
It has moved very slowly on the expansion issue, especially compared with baseball, which already has narrowed the field to six sites.
It has moved so slowly that there's much speculation the league will wind up delaying expansion from 1993 to at least 1994. But the league's official position is that the target date is still to add two teams by 1993.
At the meetings this week, the league is planning only what a spokesman called a "brief discussion" on expansion, but a key factor will be whether much opposition surfaces.
When the owners last discussed expansion in October, two owners, Ralph Wilson of the Buffalo Bills and Ed McCaskey of the Chicago Bears, expressed reservations about going ahead.
When Dan Rooney, president of the Pittsburgh Steelers, who headed the last expansion committee in 1976 and is a member of the current one, was in Baltimore last week for the Ed Block Courage Awards dinner, he hedged when asked about expansion for 1993.
He said he favored expansion and thinks the owners generally favor it, but noted problems with the economy and stopped short of endorsing 1993.
The league's official position is that it is conducting an internal review, and that it will brief the expansion and realignment committee on the results next month and discuss the issue again at an owners meeting in Minneapolis in May.
What may turn out to be critical is how hard Tagliabue is going to push for expansion. He said last year that the league would expand "possibly by 1992, certainly by 1993," and then set a 1993 target date.
In only his second year as commissioner, Tagliabue is popular among the owners and his influence could be a turning point.
For example, he took the position last November that the league should yank the 1993 Super Bowl out of Phoenix after Arizona voters turned down a paid state holiday for state workers for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
This stance has produced a backlash in Arizona, where officials note 23 cities celebrate a King holiday and that the legislature has passed a new measure to put it back on the ballot in 1992.
Phoenix's mayor, Paul Johnson, has written the owners asking for fairness in judging all the cities. He mentioned, among other things, that in Los Angeles, which could replace Phoenix as the Super Bowl site, there was the recent beating of a black man by several white police officers.
But Tagliabue wants the game moved, and he's expected to get his way.
L If he decides to push expansion, he's likely to get it, too.
Meanwhile, the cities only can put their best foot forward this week.
The lobbying will be low-key because Tagliabue, who didn't seem to like the lavish reception Jacksonville put on in Orlando last year at Disney World, wants it that way.
"The idea is not to pressure anybody and try to extort a vote or embarrass the owners. We just want to be available to give an informational update and generate good will toward Baltimore," said Herbert J. Belgrad, chairman of the Maryland Stadium Authority.
Belgrad, Butta and David Julian, the director of business development for the Greater Baltimore Committee, are the members of the Baltimore delegation.
It's difficult to know what effect the lobbying has, but the cities figure it can't hurt.