Neil Austrian, the president of the NFL, said last night that the league will expand "fairly quickly" if it wins the antitrust trial in Minneapolis.
Austrian said a courtroom victory would mean that the NFL would stick to its timetable of expanding by "this fall," but wouldn't set a definite date. He said only that the fall meant before the end of the year.
The top aide to commissioner Paul Tagliabue, Austrian was in Baltimore to attend last night's preseason game and to meet with representatives of the three groups bidding for a franchise in Baltimore.
Austrian's statement -- in one of the few interviews he has given since he was named NFL president last year -- was the most definitive statement by a top NFL official since the trial began in June that the owners will expand this year if they win the trial.
"I think the question on everybody's mind clearly is are we still on track and what implications the lawsuit in Minneapolis holds for expansion. I guess we're all disappointed that it hasn't been settled at this point," he said. "Given the current timing, the longer it drags out it starts to jeopardize staying on the timetable for expansion, which is the fall of 1992."
When he was asked specifically what happens if the owners win the trial, he said, "I'd really want to reserve judgment in terms of the specific outcome. If you say unilaterally do you win the trial, yeah, I think we'd expand fairly quickly."
He said that even the prospective owners want to know "what kind of player reservation system will there be in the future."
Austrian was asked what would happen if a victory is defined by a jury's ruling that the eight players suing in Minneapolis are not entitled to any damages and the NFL's current system of restrictions on free agency passes legal muster.
He replied, "I think the owners would probably take that to mean we ought to try and continue as quickly as we can on the timetable that we have."
He added that a court loss wouldn't necessarily derail expansion.
"I don't think there's an end to expansion. I think what happens is the process slows down until everybody can understand what the implications are," he said.
But a victory by the players would leave the NFL's future in such an uncertain state that, at the least, expansion probably would be delayed until next year.
Austrian also declined to say what date he meant by the "fall" of 1992 if the owners win.
"I think at this point for me to try and conjure up a specific date doesn't make any sense. I can't tell when the labor situation is going to play itself out," he said.
Austrian said he expected a verdict in the trial by the second or third week of September.
"There are no meetings scheduled with the players association whatsoever. My understanding is we'll be back in court on
Monday, and at the present time, this thing appears it'll go to the jury," he said.
When he was asked if Charlotte has lost momentum because of its financing problems for its stadium, he said, "No one's lost any momentum. Every group is faced with a different set of issues that they have to address. In Charlotte's case, I think they've decided that they think it probably makes more sense to look at alternate financing for the stadium. We'll meet with them sometime in the near future to see if we can be helpful in addressing those problems."
Charlotte is trying to finance its stadium with private funds, which puts it at a disadvantage with Baltimore and St. Louis, which have public funding for new stadiums.
When he was asked if Baltimore had to address anything the way Charlotte has to, he said he didn't think that anything needed addressing.
"I think we've answered most of the questions in Baltimore. I think it's just a question now of sitting down and make some evaluations on a comparative basis," he said. He also said the fact Baltimore has three ownership groups isn't a problem.
"We don't think it complicates it at all because I think each of the three ownership groups clearly has the wherewithal, clearly has the community support to get this done. We don't think it's a disadvantage at all," he said.
When he was asked if it was important for Baltimore to hold a preseason game, he said: "I think it's important. I think all the other cities have held preseason games in the past and I think it gives you a sense of the kind of community support you can expect, even though some of it may be contrived in the sense of a one-game kind of a situation."
If the NFL wins the trial, Roger Goodell, a league official, indicated the next step in the process will be that each city will be asked to make a presentation before the owners on the expansion committee. The cities also likely will be asked to conduct a corporate drive to sell luxury boxes and club seats.