Baltimore could gain as NFL pushes back expansion timetable Delay to '94 would give time to get stadium built

May 16, 1991|By Vito Stellino | Vito Stellino,Sun Staff Correspondent

NEW YORK -- The National Football League, scrapping the 1993 target date for expansion that it set last year, decided yesterday that it will attempt to expand by two teams in 1994, a delay that could help Baltimore's chances of obtaining a franchise.

With five of its seven members present, the expansion and realignment committee agreed unanimously to recommend to NFL owners that the league expand to 30 teams from 28 in 1994. The league's television contract expires after the 1993 season, and expansion would be coupled with some realignment of the six divisions.

Herbert J. Belgrad, chairman of the Maryland Stadium Authority, said 1994 would be better than 1993 for a Baltimore franchise if the league names the two cities by October.

He said that if Baltimore was named as an expansion city this fall, there would be a realistic chance of completing a new football stadium by 1994 next to the baseball stadium under construction in Camden Yards.

If the two teams were awarded later, a Baltimore team would have to play at least one season at Memorial Stadium, Belgrad said.

Some owners, notably Ralph Wilson of the Buffalo Bills and Michael McCaskey of the Chicago Bears, have opposed expansion, but the owners -- who will meet Wednesday and Thursday in Minneapolis -- are likely to approve the recommendation.

Joe Browne, a league spokesman, said, "I think this committee feels that part of its job is not only recommending expansion but helping to sell the recommendation to the other owners."

Browne said it is uncertain whether there will be a formal vote on expansion next week or whether the committee will simply get an informal go-ahead from the owners.

Among the arguments for expansion, Browne said, is that the league hasn't expanded since 1976 and must grow if it wants to maintain its popularity.

Given the NFL's slowness to expand in the past, it is unlikely that the expansion cities will be named by October. The committee didn't set a timetable yesterday, but it is expected to meet again next Wednesday morning in Minneapolis before making its presentation to all of the owners.

Belgrad said he is considering attending the Minneapolis meeting unless the league office says it would object to his doing so.

Yesterday, the league retreated from commissioner Paul Tagliabue's comment 13 months ago that the NFL would expand "possibly by 1992, certainly by 1993."

The league also issued a statement last July saying that expansion in 1993 was the target. As recently as the March meetings in Hawaii, Tagliabue said that still was the goal.

Asked why the league changed its position, Browne said the league can't realign by conference before 1994, because doing so would affect the television contracts that expire after the 1993 season. He also mentioned the stadium situations, labor problems -- the league's agreement with the players union expired in 1987 -- and scheduling.

None of those factors has changed in the past year, but Browne said the league has given more thought to expansion and that the "picture has crystallized in the last 12 months."

Despite the latest delay, Pepper Rodgers, a former coach who is spearheading the expansion effort in Memphis, Tenn., said: "You can say the glass if half-full or half-empty. I'm saying it's half-full. We would have preferred 1993, or even 1990, but at least there's a light at the end of the tunnel."

Rodgers also said that three of the leading expansion hopefuls, Baltimore, St. Louis and Charlotte, N.C., have to build stadiums and would have more time to construct them for a 1994 expansion.

Rodgers said Memphis, Jacksonville, Fla., and Oakland, Calif. already have stadiums, although Jacksonville is planning a major renovation of the Gator Bowl. San Antonio, which is building a domed stadium, and Sacramento, Calif., which needs a new stadium, also figure to get involved in the expansion derby.

Realignment, which would create six five-team divisions, is likely to become a stickier issue than expansion. The league has some obvious anomalies, including the New Orleans Saints and Atlanta Falcons in the National Football Conference Western Division, and the Phoenix Cardinals in the NFC Eastern Division. The league also would like to give the American Football Conference more major television markets.

Expansion committee members at yesterday's meeting were Art Modell of the Cleveland Browns, Norman Braman of the Philadelphia Eagles, Dan Rooney of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Edward DeBartolo Jr. of the San Francisco 49ers and Jim Finks of the New Orleans Saints. All are owners except for Finks, who is the Saints general manager. Two members, Hugh Culverhouse of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Tom Benson of the Saints, didn't attend.

Neither committee members nor Tagliabue were available for comment.

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