NFL touts '94 expansion goal as the real thing Latest move pleases Md. stadium official

PRO FOOTBALL

May 19, 1991|By VITO STELLINO

They really mean it this time. It's not another false alarm.

That seemed to be the message last week from the National Football League when the expansion and realignment committee decided to recommend the league expand by two teams in 1994.

Assuming that the full membership goes along with the plan at this week's owners' meeting in Minneapolis, this will not be like the target date for 1993 the league set last year and didn't meet. This time, they really plan to do it.

This was good news for Herbert J. Belgrad, chairman of th Maryland Stadium Authority, who will attend this week's meeting to continue his low-key selling of Baltimore and can't wait for the chance in the next few months to make the case for Baltimore to the owners. He hopes the league will set a timetable at this meeting.

Belgrad is not overconfident. He made that mistake three years ago, when he thought the Cardinals were going to move here from St. Louis.

He now knows the NFL owners are unpredictable. After all, some them thought it would be a nifty idea for the San Francisco 49ers to change their helmet logo. That idea lasted a week before it was rescinded amid a storm of protest.

But Belgrad is upbeat about the city's chances. "I take nothin for granted, but when I'm asked how do you rank yourself, you've got to have enough confidence in what you're selling if you're going to be successful," Belgrad said.

So, from a Baltimore standpoint, the announcement was welcome. The city will finally find out within the next year whether it's going to get a team.

From a larger perspective, though, the announcement last week was too little, too late.

The NFL missed an opportunity to position itself for a new era in the 21st century.

It now seems likely that the NFL will have 30 teams in 2000, because no long-range plans for more expansion are even being discussed. This means that the NFL will grow by only four teams -- to 30 from 26 -- from the 1970 merger with the American Football League to the end of the century.

That is virtually stagnation for a league that exploded in the 1960s to 26 teams from 12 and can be a smash in a small market such as Green Bay because it plays so few games.

Instead of being satisfied with six five-team divisions, the league could be thinking in terms of six six-team divisions with a 36-team league.

But the league has gotten conservative as it has grown more successful. It is no longer a leader but a follower.

For example, the National Basketball Association discovered that Charlotte, N.C., is a good market even though it was only the 34th-largest metropolitan area in the country in the 1990 census, smaller than such cities as Portland, Ore., Norfolk, Va., and Columbus, Ohio. Although Charlotte is selling the state of North Carolina, even the state's demographics aren't sensational. It has the lowest average hourly manufacturing wage ($7.54) in the nation.

Still, the NBA made the bold move of going there and proved it can be a good market. Now Charlotte is a major contender for an NFL team, but another league had to break the ground for the NFL.

The NFL also could create problems for itself by expanding by only two teams. If the NFL adds one new market, that means it has to bypass either St. Louis or Baltimore, which are the two largest markets without teams. They ranked 18th and 19th in the 1990 census.

Since both have the funding for a new stadiums, it is likely that the city bypassed will be hearing from New England Patriots owner Victor Kiam, who is unhappy with his stadium situation. That could lead to more headaches for the league.

It is unfortunate that the league, enjoying record attendance and television ratings, is so reluctant to make bold moves.

*

Bill Parcells, who departed last week as the coach of the Ne York Giants, told his friends the same things he said publicly: He doesn't know what he wants to do.

San Diego Chargers coach Dan Henning, who has long talks with Parcells, said, "He's looking for a new challenge."

But Henning warned Parcells that if he doesn't find a challenge he likes and comes back to football, it won't be the same.

"He won't be coming back to coach the Giants. He won't be coming back to New York," he said.

Parcells is a New Jersey guy who compared coaching the Giants playing the Palace. Henning, who is from New York, has coached in Atlanta and is now in San Diego, knows the difference.

"I've taken the show on the road, so to speak," he said.

The road isn't Broadway. It's not Giants Stadium. "You miss that. You miss the electricity," Henning said.

The conventional wisdom is that Parcells will spend a year in television and take the Tampa Bay job in 1992. Richardson Williamson got a two-year contract after Bill Walsh turned the job down, and he may be a caretaker coach for a year.

But even if he's a success there, Parcells will find that Tampa is a long way from the Palace.

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