PALM DESERT, Calif. -- After years of false starts and delays, the NFL said yesterday it will end the suspense this fall for Baltimore and the other competing cities and announce where the league's next two franchises will be located.
Team owners, here for their annual policy-setting meetings, made official what commissioner Paul Tagliabue said last January: that the teams will be awarded this year to begin play probably in 1995.
A committee report laying out the expansion timetable was approved without vote by the team owners.
"We've issued timetables in the past and had to delay them," Tagliabue said. "At this point, I don't see any impediment that would cause a delay. But then Fay Vincent didn't foresee an earthquake during the World Series." Vincent was baseball commissioner when a San Francisco-area earthquake interrupted the 1989 World Series.
Tagliabue said the 1995 commencement of play is a "target and a goal" that might have to be adjusted as the process moves forward.
"The statement confirms that expansion is back on track," said Herbert J. Belgard, chairman of the Maryland Stadium Authority and coordinator of the city's NFL bid. "I feel confident that in the fall of 1993 Baltimore will finally have the return of pro football."
Baltimore has been without football since a snowy night in 1984 when the Colts packed their equipment into moving vans and drove to Indianapolis.
But the city has survived the early cuts in the expansion contest and now is in the finals along with Charlotte, N.C., Memphis, Tenn., Jacksonville, Fla., and St. Louis.
The timetable calls for a review of expansion issues by a committee of owners on April 19, two meetings in May to set a franchise fee, and, in September and October, presentations to the owners by the cities and team investors. A final verdict will be announced at an unspecified date in the fall.
The league has announced guidelines in the past -- the first called for the new teams to begin play this year -- but this one doesn't have any of the contingencies contained in past statements.
"I think expansion is a certainty," said Chicago Bears owner Ed McCaskey.
The certainty of the announcement was welcomed by the competing cities, which have grown accustomed to delays.
"It's encouraging to see that they are sticking to their previously announced timetable," said Mark Richardson, a leader of Charlotte's bid.
Said St. Louis' Jerry Clinton: "It's an indication that the commissioner and a majority of the owners are dedicated to expand."