KONA, HAWAII — KONA, Hawaii -- When National Football League commissioner Paul Tagliabue talks about expansion, he's still talking about 1993.
"I'm still assuming we're looking at '93 as a target date," the commissioner said yesterday after giving both the owners and the members of the media an upbeat picture of the state of the league at the annual March meetings.
When Tagliabue mentioned the subject of expansion to the owners, he said he told them the league is currently "looking extensively at expansion in the league office."
There has been much speculation the league will delay expansion at least until 1994 because of the state of the economy.
When Tagliabue, who said last year the league would expand, "possibly by 1992, certainly by 1993," was asked about the possibility of a delay, he conceded the economy has deteriorated over the last quarter of the year and, "people still have questions as to how healthy it's going to be in 1991."
He said the questions about a delay are being asked in the analysis of expansion the league is currently making. It will be presented to the owners by the May meeting in Minneapolis, if not before then.
That Tagliabue still is publicly talking about 1993 as a target date is a positive sign that the league may expand for the first time since 1976.
Although the owners are publicly divided on the issue, Tagliabue probably can get expansion in 1993 if he pushes it.
"Listen, he's the boss," said Dan Rooney, the Pittsburgh Steelers' owner who headed the last expansion committee and is a member of the current one.
Rooney is an owner who seems concerned about going ahead with expansion in 1993, but won't rule it out.
"We have to expand in an orderly fashion. If it's '93, it's '93. If it's '94, it's '94 or later. What makes the most sense is to look at all the factors," he said.
Two owners on the opposite sides of the issue are Norman Braman of the Philadelphia Eagles and Ralph Wilson of the Buffalo Bills.
"I'm all for it," said Braman. "I can only speak for myself."
Wilson is an opponent of expansion, saying, "We have to solidify things."
He also mentioned the lack of a collective bargaining agreement as an impediment to expansion although Tagliabue said that will not have an impact on expansion.
"We're not looking at the collective bargaining aspects," he said. "We're looking more at markets. We're looking at financial aspects, we're looking at different possible ways of putting a price on a franchise that would be fair . . . and then it gets fairly complicated when you talk about tax considerations and other ways of doing it that get to be very important," he said.
Tagliabue said he wasn't sure whether there will be any more discussion of expansion at this meeting.
Tagliabue also said he hasn't spoken to Victor Kiam, the owner of the New England Patriots, who's talking about moving if he doesn't get a new stadium.
"The only thing I heard about that was there were some stories in the Boston and maybe the Baltimore papers," Tagliabue said.
The league would be expected to fight such a move because Boston is a top ten market and the television networks would frown on the league abandoning such a market.
Tagliabue said, "I think keeping a team in Boston and New England is very important, not only because it's a top ten market, but because it's an area where the NFL has a lot of fans."
Kiam also said that he thinks the meeting he has planned with Baltimore officials will come in early April, possibly on April 10.
Kiam said he still didn't know who he was going to be meeting with in Baltimore. He said a friend of his who set up the meeting said he'd be meeting with "interested parties."
The Patriots' owner said he doesn't want to move, but said he has the worst lease in the league.
Herbert Belgrad, the head of the Maryland Stadium Authority, has described the man Kiam will meet with as a "leader in the Baltimore community."