Expansion end zone now in sight

May 23, 1991|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,Evening Sun Staff

MINNEAPOLIS -- Moving with glacial speed, NFL expansion picked up some much-needed momentum yesterday when league owners formally passed a resolution to add two teams by the 1994 season.

Fifteen months after commissioner Paul Tagliabue appointed a realignment and expansion committee in Orlando, Fla., the league finally slipped into an expansion stance during its spring meetings here.

And it will be at least another 17 months before Baltimore knows if it will finally replace the Colts.

Still, this was a day of gratification for representatives of potential expansion cities, and it signaled a personal victory for Tagliabue, the league's leading proponent of expansion.

"What more positive sign can you have that the NFL is on the march?" Herb Belgrad, chairman of the Maryland Stadium Authority, asked rhetorically.

"It's good to know there is a finish line," said Mark Richardson, representing Charlotte, N.C., interests. "It's good to know how long the race is."

The newsflash is that expansion will turn out to be a marathon, not a sprint. Yesterday's resolution established two target dates. The first is March 1992, by which time Tagliabue wants his "Phase II" expansion committee to reduce the field to a "manageable" group of finalists.

The second date is the fall of 1992, by which time Tagliabue hopes to have his two winners.

Tagliabue's expansion victory was not unqualified, though. In an obvious concession to the foot-dragging owners who feel the NFL needs a collective bargaining agreement before expanding, the resolution gives the league an escape hatch.

Item (3) of the resolution says "the member clubs will make their final selection of the two expansion teams to begin play by the 1994 season, unless the commissioner and the expansion committee determine that labor-management issues constitute an impediment to such expansion timetable."

The league has been operating without a collective bargaining agreement since the players' strike of 1987.

Never mind that the last time the league expanded, in 1976, it had no collective bargaining agreement, either. This is now.

"They put [the escape clause] in the resolution to alleviate the concerns of a number of owners," Belgrad said. "I also think it gives the league some legal protection if the NLRB [National Labor Relations Board] or the courts take steps that require them to hold back on expansion.

"You have to recognize that the CBA is an unsettled issue that's out there and they can't ignore it."

If this was the Indianapolis 500, the expansion cities might be cruising under the yellow caution flag right now.

Although the league refused to reveal the resolution vote, one source said it was 24-4. Ralph Wilson, owner of the Buffalo Bills, said he was one of the "no" votes.

"I voted against it," Wilson said. "I think the timing is wrong. There's no union contract . . . there are a lot of unknowns. To sum it up, when I was in the Navy -- I won't tell you which war -- they said if you land the troops on the beach, you better clean the land mines first."

Tagliabue began sweeping for those mines during a brief news conference. He suggested that the 110 new jobs created by expansion should be incentive for the union to return to the bargaining table. Call that a bargaining chip.

Tagliabue admitted that much of what was a lengthy discussion on expansion centered on the "timetable and business conditions that have to exist in order that it be done."

Nevertheless, he persuaded the owners to endorse expansion by looking at financial projections.

"We looked at an analysis of the future revenues of the league, the future TV revenues, and the impact on club revenues of giving new teams a portion of TV revenues," Tagliabue said.

The conclusion Tagliabue reached was that the dilution of TV revenue will be offset by the expansion payments through what he called a "transitional period."

What that means is the franchise fees likely will be spread over a number of years, as was the case in the 1976 expansion.

Tagliabue, who chaired the first expansion committee, also will be chairman of the new, second committee. He named three of its five members, appointing Cleveland owner Art Modell, Philadelphia owner Norman Braman and San Francisco owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr., who was absent. The remaining two members will be named in the next 30 days, and the committee is expected to begin work this summer.

Braman said Tagliabue's involvement has been key to the expansion movement. "You're dealing with a very activist commissioner," Braman said. "I think it's a plus. He's very persuasive. He's earned the respect of the owners."

The committee's first tasks will be arriving at a more detailed timetable for expansion, then cutting down the list of contenders.

In yesterday's meeting, the owners did not address the subjects of franchise fees or the possible combination of new and old cities. New cities include Charlotte, Jacksonville, Memphis and Sacramento. Old cities, or cities that previously had NFL teams, include Baltimore, St. Louis and Oakland. Portland, a new city, reportedly is joining the chase now, too.

Belgrad believes that more cities will join the expansion picture shortly. Why? Because as difficult as this process has been, most observers feel the NFL isn't likely to expand again any time in the near future.

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