Expansion's final fight may go few rounds Owners lack consensus on team, voting format

October 24, 1993|By Vito Stellino | Vito Stellino,Staff Writer

It's appropriate the NFL expansion decision will be made in Chicago, a city with a rich history of holding political conventions, where power brokers made deals in smoke-filled rooms.

The atmosphere at the NFL owners meeting beginning Tuesday may be similar. There's likely to be a lot of behind-the-scenes maneuvering before Baltimore finds out if its long quest for a new team will succeed.

The only thing missing may be the smoke, when 27 men and one woman (Georgia Frontiere of the Los Angeles Rams) meet behind closed doors to decide which two of the five finalists will be awarded NFL expansion teams to take the field in 1995.

Besides Baltimore, the other finalists are Charlotte, N.C., Jacksonville, Fla., Memphis, Tenn., and St. Louis.

Not only isn't there a consensus among the owners about which teams will be picked, but there also may be a debate on how the voting is conducted.

"I think people are concerned this could turn into a marathon," said Atlanta Falcons owner Rankin Smith, a member of the expansion committee. "We'd like it to be as clean as possible."

Instead, a debate about the process may erupt into a controversy even before the owners get to picking the cities.

That's because commissioner Paul Tagliabue wants the expansion and finance committees to recommend two cities at a meeting Tuesday morning.

After the five finalists make short presentations Tuesday afternoon before the full ownership, Tagliabue wants the committees to make a joint recommendation to all the owners.

The owners would only have the option of voting yes or no for the recommendation. If the recommendation manages to get 21 votes, those two cities would be selected.

The problem is that it would only take eight owners to block that recommendation. Two owners, Lamar Hunt of the Kansas City Chiefs and Jerry Jones of the Dallas Cowboys, already have objected publicly. They say the owners should be able to vote for the cities they prefer even if they're not recommended.

"We're going in with an open mind," said Chuck Schmidt, vice president of the Detroit Lions, "but we'll do everything we can to vote for what we think are the two best cities even if that means voting against the recommendation." The NFL has not decided on an alternative if the recommendation plan is defeated.

One possible alternative would be to follow the way the league selects Super Bowl sites. No recommendation is made, but each owner votes for a candidate, and then the bottom city is eliminated after the first ballot if no city gets 21 votes. The owners then vote again.

One owner who's on the expansion committee and is a proponent of the recommendation plan argues the Super Bowl plan isn't an appropriate way to pick expansion teams.

He said that, on occasion, a leading Super Bowl contender has been eliminated on the first ballot because other cities were given courtesy votes on the first ballot by owners who planned to switch their votes later.

An independent group

In any case, getting a recommendation from a committee doesn't guarantee passage with this group of owners.

In 1989, a committee unanimously recommended that Jim Finks, general manager of the New Orleans Saints, be named commissioner to replace Pete Rozelle. But a group of new-guard owners, feeling they had been left out of the process, blocked his election and got Tagliabue elected as an alternative.

New York Giants owner Wellington Mara, who was a member of the committee that recommended Finks, said, "It shows you that nothing is written in stone."

Not that Tagliabue has had much more success in getting recommendations passed. Among other things, the owners rejected a television rebate for the networks, instant replay and reviving the World League, even though they had been recommended by committee.

A committee even recommended that Tagliabue be given a new contract at $3 million a year, and the owners cut it back to $1.6 million.

"It's a pretty independent group of people who aren't afraid to voice their opinions," said one owner.

One owner, who doesn't like all the maneuvering, said: "You've got some people who love to put together coalitions. They think it's a parliamentary system. And then you've got people who want to see how everybody else votes so they can go the other way."

Another owner predicted the two-team recommendation idea wouldn't pass. "Tagliabue doesn't have the votes," he said.

Then there's the question of whether any two-city recommendation would be unanimous.

One owner, who's not on either the expansion or finance committee, said that if the representatives from these 12 teams can unanimously agree on two teams, the recommendation likely would carry. Only nine of the remaining 16 teams would have to approve it.

"Unless you get a unanimous vote of both committees, which I can't see them doing, we're going to have some real battles," one owner said.

The owners on the committee aren't sure themselves if they can reach a unanimous agreement.

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