PHOENIX -- The NFL narrowed the expansion field to seven cities, including Baltimore, yesterday and promised to delete at least two more cities in May, but tied the future of expansion to the legal battle over free agency.
After eliminating three cities that didn't file the $100,000 application fee (Honolulu, Nashville, Tenn., and Raleigh-Durham, N.C.) and one that did (San Antonio), the NFL warned the remaining seven cities that plans to name two cities this fall to play in 1994 could be delayed because of the league's labor problems.
In the past, the league said management-labor problems could be an "impediment" to expansion.
In a release yesterday, the league said that "labor-management issues, in particular the June 15 McNeil trial, create substantial uncertainties regarding the expansion timetable. Unless these issues are soon settled soon or favorably resolved, this could be a significant impediment" to expansion.
Although commissioner Paul Tagliabue first said, "I don't think the committee regards that as anything new," he made it obvious that expansion will be affected by the trial starting in Minneapolis on June 15 in which a group of players will try to prove the NFL's restrictions on free agency violate antitrust laws.
Tagliabue said a "favorable jury verdict" wouldn't be an impediment to expansion.
What happens if the owners lose the case?
"It depends on how we lose it. If we lose like we did in the USFL with $1 in damages, that would be an impediment to some people, but only for small spenders. It depends . . . how you win or lose cases," he said.
In 1986, the NFL "lost" an antitrust suit to the United States Football League, but the USFL was awarded only $1 in damages -- trebled to $3 under antitrust laws -- and went out of business.
The message from Tagliabue was clear: If the NFL wins the trial or doesn't suffer much in damages, it probably will go ahead with expansion.
If it suffers a major setback, it probably would delay expansion.
As one NFC owner, who asked not to be identified, said: "It used to be in capital letters: 'We're going to expand,' and in small letters, 'but maybe we won't.' Now, in capital letters, it's, 'We probably won't' and in small letters, 'Maybe we will.' "
Author Tom Clancy, who heads one of three groups trying to own an NFL expansion franchise in Baltimore, looked at the league statement and said: "The biggest things on the plate for ** them [league officials] right now are a collective bargaining agreement, the TV contract and the economic fate of the New England Patriots. We're [expansion] fourth fiddle in that band. Are you surprised?"
Art Modell, owner of the Cleveland Browns and a member of the expansion committee, said: "There's no question we're going to expand. Don't pin me down to a time."
Herbert J. Belgrad, chairman of the Maryland Stadium Authority, held out hope that even if there is a delay, the league still would name the teams this fall and wait until 1995 to put them on the field.
He said that would give Baltimore time to build a football stadium, so the new team wouldn't have to play a year in Memorial Stadium.
"As a lawyer, I read some open language and some ambiguities in this press release which would make me concerned about the fact that perhaps 1994 is not as firm as I thought it was," Belgrad said.
When Tagliabue was asked whether the expansion cities ought to be concerned, he said, "No more concerned than I am."
How concerned is he?
"I'm optimistic [about labor peace], but I'm still concerned. It takes a lot of hard work, and hard work concerns me."
William Dunavant, one of the leaders of the expansion group in Memphis, Tenn., said: "I feel like it may not be in October, as we hoped. That just means more dollars as we go through the effort. But we're here to play, and we're here to stay."
Meanwhile, the league will continue the expansion process. Tagliabue said his staff will be meeting with representatives from the cities before the May meeting in which at least two more cities will be eliminated.
The owners also denied the cities the right to start season-ticket sales campaigns, but Tagliabue indicated that, in May, the finalists may be allowed to go ahead with "corporate and business campaigns to show commitment."
A surprise yesterday was that San Antonio, which has a domed stadium under construction, was eliminated. Tagliabue wouldn't go into specifics on why the city didn't advance.
NOTES: The owners tabled until a special meeting to be held in 10 days to two weeks the vote on the hotly disputed issue of whether to give back television money next year. With a bloc of at least 10 owners against the plan, Tagliabue doesn't have the 21 votes needed to pass the measure, so he hopes to do some arm twisting in the next week. The majority of the "new-guard" owners who supported Tagliabue, such as Braman, Jerry Jones of the Dallas Cowboys, Ken Behring of the Seattle Seahawks and Ed DeBartolo of the San Francisco 49ers, are opposing Tagliabue. John Kent Cooke, the son of Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke, also opposes the measure. . . . The league passed its first rule change, outlawing chop blocks by running backs. The change was prompted by the play on which Jerry Ball of the Detroit Lions suffered a serious knee injury when he was hit by Brad Baxter of the New York Jets.