The last time the National Football League expanded, Tampa Bay and Seattle paid $16 million each in franchise fees. That was 15 years and a lot of lawsuits ago.
The price of footballs and franchises have gone up since then. Way up. Estimates on franchise fees for the NFL's next expansion range from $125 million to $150 million per team. One NFL "insider," Fred Edelstein of The Edelstein Pro Football Letter, went so far as to suggest two weeks ago the cost might run as high as $200 million.
That number dropped jaws all around the country. In what may be wishful thinking, the majority of players in the expansion game don't believe the price will go that high.
"It seems unlikely to me any group of investors will be able to front $200 million plus organizational expenses to put a team together," said Herb Belgrad, chairman of the Maryland Stadium Authority and ringleader for Baltimore's efforts to return to the NFL.
"I'm confident the commissioner will not permit the owners to take a position that will bring the league a lot of criticism."
Belgrad's implication is clear. By extracting $400 million in franchise fees from two new cities, the league not only would strangle those cities' chances for success, but reinforce the perception that NFL owners are a greedy, single-minded lot.
By comparison, when the NBA expanded in 1988, it charged its new teams $32 million apiece. In baseball, the National League's tab is $95 million per team. The NFL, meanwhile, figures to go well beyond that. Payments in the NFL likely will be spread over a number of years.
"They won't price it without solid reasons," said Fran Murray, part owner of the New England Patriots and a would-be owner of a team in St. Louis. "Like any business, the price has to be based on potential for a franchise to pay the fee and have a reasonable chance for success."
Without question, though, money is the key element in the expansion picture. It likely will determine whether the NFL fulfills its promise to expand by 1993. In a time of rising costs and sinking economy, the owners are concerned about the league's future. They worry about the arithmetic in the next network television contract (the current deal runs through the 1993 season). They worry about splitting that money 30 ways instead of 28. And they worry about the labor battles they've had to wage while operating without a collective bargaining agreement since 1987.
Because of those and other considerations, most expansion hopefuls think the league will push back to 1994 its plans to expand.
"Economic and stadium factors make '93 more problematic than '94," said Arthur "Chick" Sherrer, president of Touchdown Jacksonville, the group seeking a franchise for Jacksonville.
In the NFL's last expansion, Seattle had 27 months of lead time between the point when an owner was approved for the franchise and the team actually played its first league game. Tampa had 21 months. Should the NFL stick to its goal of adding two teams in 1993, the schedule gets tight. Assuming the league can pick the new cities by October and the new owners by March, that would leave just 17 months of lead time.
"My guess is '94," Belgrad said.
The league's realignment and expansion committee was to meet with commissioner Paul Tagliabue today in New York to discuss financial motivation. Tagliabue was to present a report, supporting expansion and prepared by his office staff, to the seven-member committee. Next week in Minneapolis, the rest of the owners will be briefed on the report.
Despite reservations by certain owners, the expansion committee is expected to support Tagliabue's position.
"Undoubtedly, some people subscribe to the small pie theory," said Philadelphia Eagles owner Norman Braman, who is a member of the expansion committee. "And some people subscribe to the big pie theory. The committee has not reached that point yet.
"I think the committee will fall in line behind the commissioner."
Braman said he remains in favor of expansion.