After a nine-year absence, the NFL seems set to reappear in Baltimore in August with an exhibition game at Memorial Stadium between the New Orleans Saints and the Miami Dolphins.
Although the details haven't been made final, Jim Finks, the president and general manager of the New Orleans Saints, said: "We're going to do it. We're very excited about it."
Mr. Finks and Tim Robbie, president of the Dolphins, met with Herbert J. Belgrad, chairman of the Maryland Stadium Authority, at the NFL owners meeting in Dallas Thursday to work out a basic agreement to move the game from New Orleans.
Mr. Belgrad indicated that the contracts hadn't been signed but said, "This is going to be the beginning of a new era of NFL football in Baltimore."
The game, which will be played during the fourth and final week of the preseason -- which means the starting players should see a lot of action -- is tentatively scheduled for Friday, Aug. 28, although it could be shifted to Saturday for television.
Mr. Belgrad said he hopes the networks will be interested in showing on national television the first professional football game in Baltimore since Dec. 18, 1983, when the Colts, who moved to Indianapolis in March 1984, beat the Houston Oilers, 20-10, in the 1983 season finale.
Mr. Belgrad and Raymond "Chip" Mason, former head of the Greater Baltimore Committee and chairman of the efforts of the business community to bring an NFL franchise back to Baltimore, said they hope the game will boost Baltimore's efforts to land an NFL expansion team.
"We feel we're just beginning to build momentum as we come toward the finish line, and we think that this game will project us into national prominence and could be an important factor to many owners," Mr. Belgrad said.
Exhibition games were played last year in four other cities hoping to get expansion teams -- St. Louis, Charlotte, N.C.; Memphis, Tenn.; and Jacksonville, Fla. -- and games also were played in some of those cities in previous years.
The Baltimore game will be played about two months before the NFL is expected to name two expansion cities for the 1994 season, so the timing could be right for the city to impress the NFL with its enthusiasm for the return of professional football.
"We plan to use it as a marketing event and a promotional event and try to build it into more than just an exhibition game," Mr. Belgrad said.
Eleven cities have applied for the two expansion franchises, although only eight came up with ownership groups that filed the $100,000 application fee.
Earlier, Baltimore officials had refused to hold an exhibition game, but they changed their minds after the NFL set up a timetable for expansion in May. Another factor in the change of heart was other expansion contenders' criticism of Baltimore for not holding a game.
"We felt our record with the Colts over a number of years speaks foritself," Belgrad said. "We didn't have to prove ourselves. On the other hand, part of the competition in expansion is to blunt the criticisms that your competitors are discussing with some of the owners."
Mr. Mason asked, "Should Baltimore have to prove itself or not? That's in the eye of the beholder. But if we left a piece out of the puzzle that we should have put in, we'd never forgive ourselves."
Mr. Belgrad hasn't made plans for selling tickets, but he said that once Baltimore officials decided to pursue a game, he started to get calls from fans interested in buying tickets.
Although Mr. Belgrad is not forecasting how big a crowd the game might draw, anything less than a sellout would have to be a disappointment. In its last sellout for a Colts game in 1983, Memorial Stadium held 61,479 fans.
Mr. Belgrad also said he wasn't interested in just any game. He wanted an attractive matchup in the final weekend of the exhibition season, and thinks he has one in the Saints-Dolphins game.
The Dolphins are coached by former Colts coach Don Shula, and Miami also has one of the game's top quarterbacks, Dan Marino. The Saints are coached by Jim Mora, former coach of the United States Football League's Baltimore Stars. New Orleans also has a 7-0 record this season.
"We were interested in bringing Don Shula back because of his emotional attachment to Baltimore," Mr. Belgrad said. "He's one of the heroes of Baltimore. And the Saints will be in the playoffs and are a Super Bowl contender. We felt the fans of Baltimore were entitled to the best game that was available."