When NFL owners get together, expect the unexpected

PRO FOOTBALL

May 26, 1991|By VITO STELLINO

If the recent Super Bowl site selections are any barometer, the National Football League's expansion derby is likely to be a free-for-all.

When Miami upset Houston in the voting for the 1995 game last week, it was the third time in four years that the result was a surprise. Only Atlanta's selection in 1994 to play host to the game at the new Georgia Dome followed the form chart.

Minneapolis in 1992 and Phoenix in 1993 -- although it lost the game to Los Angeles after Arizona voters had turned down a Martin Luther King Jr. holiday -- were surprise results.

In the 1993 balloting, for example, San Diego Chargers owner Alex Spanos thought he had commitments for 23 votes. He got only seven on the first ballot and was eliminated.

Houston was so sure last week that it would get the 1995 game after spending $70 million to renovate the Astrodome that a full contingent of Houston TV and newspaper reporters showed up to cover the vote. By contrast, no Miami TV station bothered to send representatives.

But on the fourth ballot, after neither city could get 21 votes and Tampa, Fla., had been eliminated, Miami beat Houston by a 15-13 vote.

Houston Oilers owner Bud Adams was irate. If he hadn't helped start the American Football League in 1960, the NFL wouldn't have 28 teams today and some owners who voted against him -- it turned on an East-West split, with most Eastern cities supporting Miami -- wouldn't be in the league today.

Adams also was upset that commissioner Paul Tagliabue didn't use some of his influence on Adams' behalf. Adams helped elect Tagliabue by not attending the Chicago meeting in July 1989 when a group of new-guard owners blocked the election of New Orleans Saints president Jim Finks as commissioner.

Houston officials complained about the NFL's greed after the vote, but that's nothing new. The league likes to get the best deal. Miami has more seats and more luxury boxes, which translates into more money.

All this shows how wide-open the expansion derby is likely to be. The conventional wisdom is that the NFL will take one old city and one new city. But the NFL has no formula: It could well take two new cities or even two old cities.

It wouldn't be a surprise if no city can get 21 votes, and the league then would face a deadlock if the owners can't agree on going to a majority vote.

What is likely to be important to the owners is not demographics, but rather which city is offering the best deal. That's why Jacksonville, Fla., usually viewed as a long shot, could come up with a surprise. Jacksonville is a small market but its selling point is that the visiting team will take home $1 million for each game played there. Don't underestimate that point: Money talks in the NFL.

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Even if Baltimore loses in the expansion derby, it could have a shot at a consolation prize -- the New England Patriots.

Baltimore didn't show much interest in the Patriots when owner Victor Kiam floated a trial balloon earlier this year because it is concentrating on an expansion team. But if the city doesn't get one, Kiam figures to be back knocking on the door and Baltimore would have no other alternative.

The Patriots' official line is that they're committed to trying to make it work in Foxboro, Mass. They've got to say that because they must sell tickets the next two years.

"We're going to put effort forth to make it work," said Sam Jankovich, Patriots chief executive officer. "Only time will tell, just like in other places, like Baltimore and Oakland and St. Louis -- they gave it time and it didn't work, and then they left and now they're working very hard to get teams back in all those areas. We're going to give this a legitimate shot and see if we can get the proper financial base to be competitive in the NFL."

The only way the Patriots can get that base is if New England builds them a stadium -- and that's unlikely to happen.

"If things don't improve financially . . . then we'll have to look at other alternatives," Jankovich said.

That's a code phrase for moving.

The Patriots and Kiam may not seem too attractive, but the Patriots are an NFL team. And unless Sen. Al Gore, D-Tenn., can prod the NFL, there won't be any more expansion for a long time.

The Baltimore Patriots? Well, "The Star Spangled Banner" was written here.

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