BOSTON -- The good news for the National Football League players in Minnesota today is bad news for New England Patriots fans.
The court ruling in the players' favor in their antitrust suit against the owners does nothing to help keep the Patriots in New England.
NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue has said that as long as there is no settlement with the players, there will be no expansion in the league. Tagliabue also has said it could take four to five years for the appeals on the McNeil case to run their course through the judicial system.
The league had plans to try to expand by at least two teams in 1994 or '95. Five cities are in the hunt -- St. Louis, Baltimore, Charlotte, Memphis and Jacksonville. The historical rule of thumb has been that when the NFL awards expansion franchises, the new city and owner get two years' notice.
Using Tagliabue's calculations, it could be 1994 or '95 before the final decision is in, and then it would be at least another two years before the two new teams could be in business -- if, indeed, the owners would vote for expansion at that time.
The Patriots would be affected thusly: The five cities in contention have money and are prepared to have an NFL team almost immediately. The Patriots are the most available team in the NFL. Present owner James Orthwein, despite his claims, really does not want to be here. He has said publicly that he would like to steady the Patriots franchise, recoup his money and be on the road back to St. Louis, where he hopes to be chosen to head up a new NFL franchise.
The ground has been broken on a stadium to house an NFL team. If indeed the earliest date for expansion now is 1997 or '98, it would make sense for Orthwein to move the Patriots to St. Louis. When he purchased majority interest from Victor Kiam in March, the league supposedly inserted clauses that he cannot move the team.
However, the league has criteriain its bylaws by which a team can move, and assuredly, the Patriots -- with their current attendance, stadium deal and lack of fan support -- easily would qualify. Beyond that, Al Davis has shown it can be done through the courts even if the league fights it.
There are some in the NFL, however, who doubt that expansion at any time in the near future is realistic. "There is no way expansion could get the votes in this league now," says Ralph Wilson of the Buffalo Bills. "Everything is up in the air. This players thing. The television thing. We are going to take a big hit on TV in the next contract and we know it. With all the uncertainty in the future, if a vote were taken right now, expansion would fail."
Therefore, the court rulings and the mood in the league make the Patriots a prime target. People in the proposed expansion cities have been working diligently for years to get a team. They have the people in place with the money to buy the Patriots and make the move.
Kiam claimed that he had $100 million-plus offers from two of these cities. The money will be there for Orthwein to bail out financially and sell the team if he decides to do so. However, with his roots in St. Louis and his desire to lead an NFL franchise into a new stadium in that city, it seems more logical for him to move the Patriots there when that stadium is ready.