Jacksonville's expansion draw play goes for no gain as Tisch remains in Baltimore


All is fair in love and NFL expansion.

That includes trying to lure away one city's guiding light to enhance your own.

The case in point occurred three weeks ago when influential members of Jacksonville's would-be ownership group attempted to recruit Robert Tisch, the New York hotel magnate who is vying for an NFL franchise in Baltimore, to their cause.

To his credit and Baltimore's relief, Tisch said, "Thanks, but no thanks."

"I was approached by friends in Jacksonville who asked if I would join them in possibly helping get a franchise," Tisch said yesterday. "They didn't try to dissuade me from Baltimore.

"I said, 'In my world, I lead the party I come from. Baltimore is who I am involved with. Baltimore is who I will stay with.' And I thanked them."

Welcome to the high-stakes game of NFL expansion, where, obviously, almost anything goes. It is a game of intrigue that mixes politics, big business and bigger egos. It is, for Baltimore and several other eager cities, the game before the game.

Inching ever closer to reality, the topic of expansion will be raised anew next Tuesday in Chicago, where the league's owners will hold their annual fall meeting.

For the first time since commissioner Paul Tagliabue appointed an expansion and realignment committee last March, that committee will report to the full NFL ownership. The result of that report could range from simple debate to an official declaration to expand by two teams in 1993. Jim Finks, a member of the committee and general manager of the New Orleans Saints, says not to hold your breath, though.

"I don't think any recommendation will be made," Finks said. "I think the commissioner will make a presentation and summarize what we've discussed in our two meetings. I think there will be an open discussion on the merits of expansion. I'd be very surprised if there were any conclusions."

Finks described the committee's two meetings as "philosophical" in nature. Expansion is expected to be a much bigger topic at league meetings in Hawaii next spring. Sometime between now and then, the league will need to provide guidelines and establish criteria.

Interestingly, the NFL has asked the various expansion city hopefuls not to attend next week's session. Herb Belgrad, chairman of the Maryland Stadium Authority, said he would honor that request, as will Memphis. But at least three other cities -- St. Louis, Jacksonville and Charlotte -- plan to send a representative.

"We want to be there in case something happens," said Charlotte's Mark Richardson, son of South Carolina businessman and former Colt Jerry Richardson, who heads the Carolina effort. Belgrad prefers not to get in the way during the two-day meeting.

Another city that doesn't figure to attend is Oakland. Ravaged by two natural disasters -- last year's earthquake and Raiders owner Al Davis -- the city has football no higher than third on its priority list.

George Vukasin, chief executive officer of the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum, listed those priorities in order as building a new arena for the NBA Golden State Warriors, re-establishing a strong relationship with the Oakland A's, and sitting down to talk about expansion.

"We've gone through the mill with the Raiders," Vukasin said. "This is the second time we thought we had a deal with Davis."

Davis agreed to a 20-year lease to keep the Raiders in Los Angeles a month ago after announcing he would move the club back to Oakland.

Vukasin said that after the latest announcement, he has been approached by three prospective expansion groups and by one team that wanted to talk about relocation. He declined to identify that team. But it is clear Oakland is in a post-Raider funk.

"There won't be a football team here until the arena is off the ground," Vukasin said. "And right now it's in the planning stages."

Expansion itself is still in the formative stages. Still to be named is the expansion committee that will make the final recommendation to the owners. Tentatively, that committee is supposed to be appointed before the Hawaii meetings. And its final recommendations should be delivered by October 1991. Owners will be selected after the franchises are awarded.

For Baltimore, those ownership possibilities include Tisch, Blast owner Ed Hale, real estate developer Nathan Landow of Bethesda, and former Green Bay quarterback Bart Starr.

Until the league sets some guidelines, expansion plans are in a holding pattern. Baltimore prepared an economic package and had ticket guarantees in place when it wooed Bill Bidwill's Cardinals in 1987. But the numbers will be different for an expansion team.

"When we get guidelines, then we'll have enough information to proceed," Belgrad said. "Right now it doesn't make sense to proceed blindly. It's a difficult economic climate. We don't want to ask the corporate community to make unrealistic commitments."

All the expansion hopefuls are proceeding in one fashion or another. Baltimore awaits the awarding of a franchise before starting construction on a 65,000-seat football stadium at Camden Yards. But all the land has been acquired, utilities relocated, and the city's architectural firm has begun work on stadium design.

Even though the league has not encouraged advance sale of tickets, St. Louis has sold 28,000 season tickets at $25 a pop in a campaign designed to erase the stigma left from Bidwill's reign. Memphis is planning a similar campaign. Jacksonville has undertaken a study to renovate the archaic Gator Bowl, changing from steel to concrete.

And optimism abounds on all fronts. A sampling comes from Jacksonville, where Chick Sherrer, president of the city's prospective ownership group, believes he has spotted a trend.

"I think the single biggest thing going for us is the Sun Belt theory," Sherrer said. "It's the same reason Atlanta got the Olympics. The 'New South' is a powerful tool."

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