Baltimore's foes can play catch-up if weak-kneed NFL delays expansion

John Steadman

March 18, 1992|By John Steadman

No doubt commissioner Paul Tagliabue, from every action and spoken word, wants to initiate an expansion process for the National Football League. It would be a monumental move for his administration, would create extensive credibility and reflect, in a positive way, upon the leadership he represents. But hold on.

The club owners are seemingly allowing themselves, by "delay of game" tactics, to be held hostage by the NFL Players Association. If this hypothesis is true, then the men who operate the franchises and sign the checks no longer control their own destinies.

Has the NFL come to this? The expansion burden was lightened only minimally yesterday when four of the 11 cities making applications were eliminated. Nashville, Raleigh/Durham, Honolulu and San Antonio were thanked for their interest but scratched from the race. Subtracting San Antonio was the only mild surprise.

That leaves Baltimore, which has the strongest of all presentations, St. Louis, Charlotte, Oakland, Memphis, Jacksonville and Sacramento still under consideration. From the Baltimore viewpoint, any postponement of expansion from the targeted date of 1994, as Tagliabue projected, gives all the rival candidates a perfect opportunity to play catch-up. That's the realistic development that could transpire if expansion is placed on hold.

What Baltimore boasts, at this point, can hardly be improved upon. It has the largest available stadium, a new one ready for construction with monies approved by the state legislature, and ticket guarantees from the business community assuring sellouts for 10 years. If the expansion plan is put off, then it's to be interpreted as a negative for Baltimore in that it grants extra preparation time to all the rivals.

The encouraging thing, up to now, is this actually hasn't happened. There's still a chance the expansion business will proceed as planned. Tagliabue and the owners have not said it isn't going to take place. But they are lending more credence than previously to what they perceive as storm warnings. They are moving cautiously.

Expansion could be slowed but this is a decision that will be determined between now and mid-June. The NFL and the Players Association have gone their separate ways, operating without a working agreement, since October 1987.

The players decertified as a union and are bound for court June 15 in an effort to obtain free agency via an antitrust suit. The league, through Tagliabue, has said the lack of a contract with the players "is not a rigid impediment," which offers a continuing degree of optimism for the cities remaining in the expansion hunt.

The NFL has an "out" if it wants to await the court verdict before it exercises its options of adding two new teams. Tagliabue and the expansion committee are faced with other problems, too. Namely the television contracts with the networks and what to do about the sad state of financial affairs concerning the New England Patriots.

As for expansion, the promise is that the seven cities bidding for consideration will be trimmed in May at a meeting in Los Angeles, with Sacramento, Oakland and Jacksonville expected to be dropped. At that time, it's believed the league will allow the remaining contenders to solicit sales for luxury boxes if they care to make such a move. This would be an accommodation that would particularly benefit the Carolina representative based in Charlotte.

The Baltimore delegation believes it is in good position, including all three of the ownership groups. With the expansion outlook given clarification, the potential owners will soon be leaving Phoenix for their homes around the country. There's no need to stay any longer. They have been seen and heard -- whatever that's worth -- considering the expansion issue is reposing in a nebulous state.

Leonard "Boogie" Weinglass will be returning to Aspen, Colo., where he has a residence, and may put together, according to one of his associates, an introductory video. Tom Clancy, according to an NFL club owner, "scored a 10 strike" in the presentation he distributed. Clancy is headed for Boston to receive the John F. Kennedy Distinguished Irish-American Award. The Glazers, father Malcolm and his two sons, also have not let up in expressing their interest in operating a Baltimore team.

But if NFL expansion is delayed beyond 1994 it could create future problems for all three groups in that they will have the

frustration of going "all out" but, at the same time, not being able to advance the football.

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