NFL to decide expansion in year

September 18, 1992|By Vito Stellino | Vito Stellino,Staff Writer

GRAPEVINE, Texas -- The NFL won't be naming two expansion teams next month as planned, and a league official said yesterday it will decide within a year whether to add teams at all.

"I don't believe anyone here wants to keep stringing the cities out. We clearly can't leave them hanging indefinitely. They've spent too much time, money and energy on this project," said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Commissioner Paul Tagliabue announced after a meeting of the 28 NFL team owners yesterday that they decided the league won't name two expansion teams from among Baltimore and four other finalists at its Oct. 20 meeting in Chicago.

That means it's also unlikely the league will stick to its timetable of getting two expansion teams on the field for the 1994 season, but Mr. Tagliabue left open the possibility that the NFL still could expand by 1994, "if we can resolve the labor situation relatively quickly."

Mr. Tagliabue declined to speculate on what would happen if the league can't negotiate a collective bargaining agreement in the next year with the NFL Players Association.

But the league source said the NFL then would have to decide whether to expand without a labor agreement or to inform the five expansion candidates it no longer was planning to expand soon.

The league has reduced the field of 11 contenders to Baltimore, Charlotte, N.C., St. Louis, Memphis, Tenn., and Jacksonville, Fla.

Herbert J. Belgrad, the chairman of the Maryland Stadium Authority, said he wasn't upset by the delay as long as it isn't longer than a year.

"I would consider that a short delay," he said.

The next year is critical in the labor negotiations. The two sides have what Mr. Tagliabue called "a window of opportunity" for a settlement in the next eight months in the wake of the recent ruling in a federal antitrust case brought against the league by several players.

Two deadlines loom. By Feb. 1, when player contracts expire, the NFL must come up with a free-agency plan to replace the one invalidated in court. By the end of April, the league would have to devise a new draft system.

If the two sides can't reach a deal before those two deadlines, both sides would seem committed to battling it out in court -- a fight that Mr. Tagliabue said could mean "five or seven or eight or nine or 10 more years of additional litigation."

Still, when the league last expanded to Seattle and Tampa, Fla., in 1976, it didn't have a collective bargaining agreement, so it could decide to expand without one.

"I couldn't say that," Mr. Tagliabue said when he was asked if the league wouldn't expand without a labor agreement. "That would be speculative."

Last week, a federal court in Minneapolis ruled that the NFL's Plan B free-agency system violates antitrust laws. Under that system, each NFL team protected 37 players, and the rest of the players were declared free agents with a two-month window to sign with other teams.

Mr. Belgrad also said he was encouraged that the league official said the NFL will decide within a year whether or not to expand.

"I don't think it's good PR or good business sense to delay and delay and delay. You reach a point in time where you have to make a decision. Even if the decision is that they don't see expansion in the foreseeable future, at least it brings it to some conclusion. You can't continue it indefinitely," he said.

Mr. Belgrad said the stadium authority has spent about $500,000 -- all in private money -- to promote the Baltimore expansion effort, but expects to make about a $300,000 profit on the NFL exhibition game at Memorial Stadium last month.

Of the five cities in the race, Charlotte has reported spending the most -- $4 million to $5 million. The other cities say they've spent more than $1 million on the effort.

Mr. Tagliabue said: "Representatives of the five cities share the view that an unsettled labor situation is not the time to move ahead on expansion."

"It's a disappointment," said Leonard "Boogie" Weinglass, head of one of three investment groups interested in owning a team in Baltimore. "I was all set to go. . . . But we knew all along that there was this stumbling block."

However, Mr. Weinglass said he is convinced that the league eventually will expand, probably in 1995. Mr. Weinglass said he remains committed to Baltimore and is optimistic.

"Unless something really underhanded happens, Baltimore is going to get the team," he said.

Bryan Glazer, son of Malcolm Glazer, another potential Baltimore owner, said: "Expansion is a funny game, and we just have to hold our heads high and hope that Baltimore gets a team."

Jon Morgan of the Sports staff contributed to this article.

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