Kona, Hawaii -- The potential expansion cities will form the stag line at the National Football League's annual March dance this week.
They all want the league to know that they're available.
Even though commissioner Paul Tagliabue asked the various cities not to open hospitality suites or hold receptions the way they have in the past, representatives from at least seven cities will be on hand this week for the league's annual March meetings. This is the only week-long meeting the league conducts all year.
"We decided we had to have a presence here," said Henry Butta, a member of the three-man Baltimore delegation who arrived last night. "This is no time not to show up at an owners meeting."
Mark Richardson, the son of former Colt Jerry Richardson who is heading the Charlotte, N.C., expansion effort, said: "I think not showing up at this point in time would generate a lot questions. A lot of people would ask why someone wouldn't go when things are starting to heat up."
Besides Baltimore and Charlotte, St. Louis, Memphis, Tenn.; Jacksonville, Fla.; Oakland, Calif., and Sacramento, Calif., are going to be represented.
If you include San Antonio, Texas, which is constructing a domed stadium, those cities are expected to be vying for the next two expansion teams. Birmingham, Ala.; Portland, Ore., and Orlando, Fla., also could get in the race along with Montreal, but they would be considered long shots.
The cities hoping to get teams like to think they finally can see a light at the end of the tunnel, although they can't be sure.
"I'm hoping for a positive signal this week," said Pepper Rodgers, the former coach who is leading the Memphis expansion effort.
The league has been sending out conflicting signals on expansion.
It has moved very slowly on the expansion issue, especially compared with baseball, which already has narrowed the field to six sites.
It has moved so slowly that there's much speculation the league will wind up delaying expansion from 1993 to at least 1994. But the league's official position is that the target date is still to add two teams by 1993.
At the meetings this week, the league is planning only what a spokesman called a "brief discussion" on expansion, but a key factor will be whether much opposition surfaces.
When the owners last discussed expansion in October, two owners, Ralph Wilson of the Buffalo Bills and Ed McCaskey of the Chicago Bears, expressed reservations about going ahead.
When Dan Rooney, president of the Pittsburgh Steelers, who headed the last expansion committee in 1976 and is a member of the current one, was in Baltimore last week for the Ed Block Courage Awards dinner, he hedged when asked about expansion for 1993.
He said he favored expansion and thinks the owners generally favor it, but noted problems with the economy and stopped short of endorsing 1993.
The league's official position is that it is conducting an internal review, and that it will brief the expansion and realignment committee on the results next month and discuss the issue again at an owners meeting in Minneapolis in May.
What may turn out to be critical is how hard Tagliabue is going to push for expansion. He said last year that the league would expand "possibly by 1992, certainly by 1993," and then set a 1993 target date.
In only his second year as commissioner, Tagliabue is popular among the owners and his influence could be a turning point.
For example, he took the position last November that the league should yank the 1993 Super Bowl out of Phoenix after Arizona voters turned down a paid state holiday for state workers for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
This stance has produced a backlash in Arizona, where officials note 23 cities celebrate a King holiday and that the legislature has passed a new measure to put it back on the ballot in 1992.
Phoenix's mayor, Paul Johnson, has written the owners asking for fairness in judging all the cities. He mentioned, among other things, that in Los Angeles, which could replace Phoenix as the Super Bowl site, there was the recent beating of a black man by several white police officers.
But Tagliabue wants the game moved, and he's expected to get his way.
L If he decides to push expansion, he's likely to get it, too.
Meanwhile, the cities only can put their best foot forward this week.
The lobbying will be low-key because Tagliabue, who didn't seem to like the lavish reception Jacksonville put on in Orlando last year at Disney World, wants it that way.
"The idea is not to pressure anybody and try to extort a vote or embarrass the owners. We just want to be available to give an informational update and generate good will toward Baltimore," said Herbert J. Belgrad, chairman of the Maryland Stadium Authority.
Belgrad, Butta and David Julian, the director of business development for the Greater Baltimore Committee, are the members of the Baltimore delegation.
It's difficult to know what effect the lobbying has, but the cities figure it can't hurt.
After all, there's something of a self-selection process in the expansion derby. If the league went simply by demographics, St. Louis and Baltimore would get the teams. In the 1990 census, they ranked as the 17th- and 18th-largest metropolitan areas in the nation with 2.44 million and 2.38 million people, respectively. They were the two largest areas without a team. The next five largest cities without teams were Sacramento, Portland; Norfolk, Columbus, Ohio; and San Antonio. They ranked 26th through 30th.
Charlotte was only 34th on the list, but often is listed as the "new city" (one that's never had a team) with the best chance of getting a franchise, even though it lacks a stadium. That's because Charlotte has sold itself as a two-state Carolina franchise with 9.6 million people within a 150-mile radius of the city.
"We feel it's been established in Carolina that people will travel 150 miles to see a sporting event," Richardson said. The city has been an avid supporter of its National Basketball Association franchise.
Rodgers, though, argues: "When people think of North Carolina, they don't think football. They think basketball."
These debates can go back and forth endlessly, but any of the contenders could support a team if it's run well. A pro football team needs a base of only 15,000 season ticket-holders to support a team and fill a 60,000- or 70,000-seat stadium -- Green Bay, Wis., supports one with no problem. The NFL probably could expand to 36 or even 40 teams if it wanted to. Colleges produce a virtually endless supply of players every year.
The problem is that the NFL has been reluctant to slice up the television pie by adding more teams. The real question now is whether the NFL, which has added only two teams since 1970, finally is ready to add two more.
All the expansion hopefuls will be looking this week for what Rodgers calls those positive signals.
Also on agenda
Items besides expansion on the agenda for the NFL March meetings:
* 1993 Super Bowl: After awarding it to Phoenix last year, the league is expected to move the game because Arizona voters rejected a Martin Luther King holiday for state workers last November. Los Angeles and San Diego are the candidates to replace Phoenix.
* Instant replay: It will take 21 votes for it to be approved for a sixth season as a so-called experiment. Last year, it was approved by a 21-7 vote and remains a controversial item, but is likely to pass again.
* In the grasp: There will be proposals to modify the controversial "grasp and control" rule to prevent officials from stopping play when the quarterback isn't in the "control" of a defender.
* Officiating: Jerry Seeman, the new director of officials, will propose ways to make the calls by the various crews more consistent.
* Length of game: The league shortened the length of the average game from 3 hours, 11 minutes to 2 hours, 58 minutes last year and will study ways to keep the games shorter than three hours.
* Pay-per-view: The owners will discuss experimenting with the pay-TV concept in either 1992 or 1993 on a limited basis.
* Corporate ownership: The owners are likely to maintain their ban on corporate ownership of teams.
* Tie-breakers: The owners will study ways of simplifying the complicated method of breaking ties for the playoffs.
* Labor relations: The league is entering its fifth straight season without a collective-bargaining agreement with the NFL Players Association, but the sentiment is likely to be to continue the league's opposition to free agency, especially in light of the spree of free-agent baseball signings.
* Giants sale: The purchase of 50 percent of the New York Giants from the Mara family by New York businessman Bob Tisch is expected to be formally approved with no opposition.