If the light at the end of the tunnel is not a train, then it must be time for the NFL to expand. At least eight cities around the country certainly hope so.
What will determine who gets a franchise -- if, in fact, the NFL really decides to expand? The criteria will cover a multitude of assets, including television market, stadium availability and prospective ownership.
Herb Belgrad, the chairman of the Maryland Stadium Authority, has been chasing a Baltimore franchise for almost five years now and he thinks the city is sitting pretty.
"I think the national media rates Baltimore up at the top," Belgrad said yesterday. "We have merits the other cities don't have; we have strengths other cities don't have. But we take nothing for granted. We're not overconfident."
Expansion hopefuls will be attentive nex Wednesday when the NFL owners discuss the merits of a two-team expansion for the 1994 season. The league's realignment and expansion committee will make that recommendation, and then it'll be up to the owners to formally commit to the idea.
Here are the merits of eight cities with design on an NFL franchise:
* TV market: 22nd in nation.
* Stadium: The Maryland Stadium Authority will build a 65,000-seat, football-only facility at Camden Yards. It probably will be open air with natural grass, with 7,500 to 10,000 club seats and more than 100 skyboxes. The projected cost is between $140 million and $150 million, and $114 million of that has been allocated by the General Assembly. The rest will come from three sports lotteries. The stadium authority also will renovate the Colts' training complex at Owings Mills, expanding the administrative offices and adding a third, perhaps covered, practice field.
* Potential ownership: At least three groups are known to be vying for a franchise. They are headed by Nathan Landow, a Bethesda-based real estate developer and Democratic Party fund-raiser; Bart Starr, former Green Bay Packers quarterback; and Ed Hale, who owns the Blast soccer team. New York businessman Robert Tisch was the front-runner until he purchased 50 percent of the New York Giants recently.
* Realignment: Baltimore would fit cozily into the NFC East/Amtrak division with Washington, Philadelphia and New York, but could wind up in realigned AFC East because of TV market considerations.
* Selling points: The new stadium along the harbor, TV market size and a storied tradition.
* Pitfall: The loss of Tisch as major investor dropped Baltimore from virtual lock to joining the scramble for a franchise.
* TV market: 31st.
* Stadium: Former Colts receiver Jerry Richardson, now a restaurant magnate, will privately fund a $125 million, football-only stadium on 26 acres of land donated by the city of Charlotte. It would be an open air, 70,000-seat, natural grass facility.
* Potential ownership: Richardson Sports (Jerry and son Mark) is the prime investor.
* Realignment: Charlotte could join a revised AFC East that includes Baltimore, or move into a southern division that includes Atlanta, Miami, Tampa Bay and New Orleans.
* Selling points: It is "virgin" territory, the NBA has gone over big there, and the concept of regionalization. Nearby Raleigh-Durham is the 34th TV market and Greenville-Spartanburg, S.C., is 36th.
* Pitfall: Charlotte's bid falls apart if the Richardsons aren't approved as owners. An exorbitant franchise fee, coupled with the cost of the stadium, also could eliminate the Richardsons.
* TV market: 57th.
* Stadium: The 82,000-seat Gator Bowl will undergo $60 million in renovations with public funding if the city gets a franchise. There will be 123 luxury skyboxes and 8,000 club seats.
* Potential ownership: Jacksonville businessman Thomas Petway's group includes Jeb Bush, son of the president, and Hamilton Jordan, former chief of staff under President Carter.
* Realignment: Jacksonville could join Miami, Tampa Bay, Atlanta and New Orleans in the south.
* Selling points: Finance is Jacksonville's strong point. The luxury skyboxes and club seating are worth an estimated $15 million to the club. Also, the team will get 65 percent of the concessions and 65,000 square feet of corporate headquarters space.
* Pitfall: The TV market is small, and the image is not necessarily big league.
* TV market: 41st.
* Stadium: Liberty Bowl, with 63,000 seats. The city council approved funding for 40 luxury skyboxes.
* Potential ownership: With Federal Express chairman Fred Smith bowing out, the key investors likely would be William B. Dunavant Jr., a cotton merchant and former owner of the Memphis Showboats, and his cousin, Paul Tudor Jones II, a futures trader on Wall Street.
* Realignment: Could join an AFC Central grouping of Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Cincinnati and K.C.
* Selling points: It's a football-crazed area. The Showboats sold 38,000 seats a game in the USFL.
* Pitfall: The loss of Smith was critical. He gave Memphis credibility in NFL circles.