Don't look for owners' expansion short list to be very short

PRO FOOTBALL

March 15, 1992|By VITO STELLINO

It's somewhat fitting that as the NFL owners arrive in Phoenix this weekend for the start of their annual March meetings, the Ostrich Festival will be taking place nearby in Chandler, Ariz.

The festival includes ostrich races, but the NFL owners would be advised to check the ostriches' form when they stick their heads in the sand.

When the subject of expansion comes up Tuesday, the owners are likely to be sticking their heads in the sand.

If a conference call held last week by Joe Browne, the league's director of communications and development, is any indication, what the owners won't do will be more significant than what they will do.

They don't appear to be going full speed toward naming two expansion teams by this fall.

This is the meeting in which the owners were supposed to cut the field to a short list. It might better be called a long list. Browne would say only that there will be a reduction of "some cities."

That could mean six to eight cities will make this "short" list. Since only eight cities put up the $100,000 application fee, that's not much of a cut-down.

The NFL is even still counting Honolulu as an applicant, even though it wasn't represented when the cities made presentations in New York in December.

That way, the league can announce it is paring Honolulu from the list. Ditto for Raleigh-Durham, N.C., and Nashville, Tenn., which also didn't pay the application fee. That's three cities that can be cut easily to make it eight. Now the question is whether the NFL will cut any city that paid the application fee.

The NFL also won't put a price tag on the expansion teams. No use moving too quickly.

Then there's the larger question concerning expansion. When they passed their expansion resolution in Minneapolis last May, the owners said they could delay expansion if labor-management problems were an "impediment."

Ten months later, the management-labor situation remains unchanged. Jeff Kessler, an attorney for the players, described the talks as "moribund." He said that the players are preparing for the start of their June 15 antitrust trial against the owners on the free-agency question.

Meanwhile, the league still won't define what they consider an impediment. All Browne did on his conference call was to read the statement commissioner Paul Tagliabue made at his Super Bowl news conference in January.

The statement was classic Tagliabue legalese. He said: "We could conclude that there was no impediment even without a collective bargaining agreement. We might conclude there was an impediment. It really doesn't turn on any rigid way on the existence or not of a collective bargaining agreement. It depends on an overall assessment."

Whatever that means.

The best guess is that if the owners lose the antitrust trial, they won't be eager to go forward with expansion. If they win, they probably will.

Browne referred all questions to Tagliabue at this week's meeting, so the expansion cities can only wait to see whether he has any update.

They can only hope he doesn't simply read the statement he made in January the way Browne did. Or stick his head in the sand.

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Selling Baltimore: Herbert Belgrad, chairman of the Maryland Stadium Authority, will represent the city at the meetings along with two civic leaders, Henry Butta and Matt DeVito. The leaders of the three expansion groups, Florida businessman Malcolm Glazer, clothing magnate Leonard "Boogie" Weinglass and author Tom Clancy (who has sent autographed copies of his best sellers and a video to each owner), will be on hand.

Belgrad has no illusions that he'll accomplish much at this meeting because the NFL won't let the cities open hospitality rooms. That's apparently part of the league's campaign to downplay expansion, so the Baltimore representatives will have to shake hands in the hallway.

Belgrad said, "If everybody else is attending, you feel obligated to be there." He hopes to have a dinner with the leaders of the three expansion groups to coordinate strategy for Baltimore.

The Charlotte bandwagon: The conventional wisdom is still that Charlotte, N.C., and St. Louis will get the two franchises, if any are awarded. USA Today last week predicted those cities will get the two teams.

Even though league officials like Charlotte, the city's lack of funding for a new stadium is a nagging worry. League and Charlotte officials met last week to study the feasibility of the city's borrowing money to build a stadium and buy the team.

Rankin Smith, owner of the Atlanta Falcons, last week became the first member of the expansion committee publicly to express concern about Charlotte's plans.

In an interview with the Atlanta Constitution, Smith said: "It's a factor, and it's something we have to look into. Any time you borrow that much money [up to $300 million], it is a concern."

Charlotte officials are confident, but the lack of stadium funding may yet hurt them.

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