Expansion, an idea whose time finally may have arrived for the ever-cautious National Football League, leaped off the drawing board yesterday.
Next week it will land squarely in the laps of the league's 28 owners.
In what amounts to the NFL's strongest stance yet on the subject, the league's realignment and expansion committee will recommend to the full ownership next Wednesday in Minneapolis to expand by two teams for the 1994 season.
If the recommendation is ratified, it would signal the first expansion of the league since 1976, when it took in Tampa and Seattle as its 27th and 28th members.
The recommendation, formed during a three-hour meeting at league headquarters in New York yesterday, is expected to pass the ownership test during next week's meetings.
The news was met with quiet confidence in Baltimore, which has been seeking a return to the NFL since Bob Irsay took the Colts to Indianapolis in 1984.
"I have every reason to think we should be one of the two," said Herb Belgrad, chairman of the Maryland Stadium Authority and a Baltimore attorney. "Based on the criteria we've considered, and particularly based on a wrong that should be righted and a tradition that should be remembered, Baltimore certainly has earned the right to re-enter the NFL."
Although commissioner Paul Tagliabue originally targeted 1993 as his goal for expansion, the date was pushed back to coincide with realignment and a new network TV contract.
A statement issued from the league office said, "The committee believes that the 1994 season is preferred over '93 due to community planning needs, realignment, television, labor and schedule factors."
The extra year of lead time will prove beneficial to cities like Baltimore and St. Louis, which are planning to build new stadiums, and to Jacksonville, which plans a $60 million renovation of the Gator Bowl. Baltimore has funding from the General Assembly to build a football-only stadium in Camden Yards, adjacent to the new Orioles ballpark. Tentative plans call for a 65,000-seat stadium that will cost between $130 million and $150 million.
A decision on the new teams could come as early as next October, or perhaps as late as March of 1992. Belgrad hopes expansion takes the "fast track" and that a decision is rendered in October.
"It would permit cities planning to build stadiums to have enough time to complete their new facilities by '94," he said.
The scheduling could get tight for Baltimore. In expansion, the NFL awards franchises first, and then appoints owners. If franchises are awarded by next October, owners likely would follow in March. But Baltimore cannot build its stadium before reaching a long-term lease agreement with the new tenant.
"Our legislation requires us to have both an owner and a long-term lease before we are able to sell bonds," Belgrad said. "We learned from our baseball experience that in order to do the job right, it requires an exhaustive amount of planning. We would need to embark immediately on consultant studies and architectural design [upon the awarding of a franchise], so even if an owner was not selected for six months, it would not delay the process."
Although the stadium authority conducted lengthy negotiations with the Orioles over terms of their new lease, Belgrad doesn't expect the same to hold true in football. The authority has studied other NFL leases and come up with terms that "are in line with the kinds of leases other teams are enjoying today," he said.
Belgrad estimates that the actual construction time for the Orioles' park will be 18 months. If the football process is delayed, Baltimore might be forced to use Memorial Stadium for a season until the new stadium is ready.
The NFL's statement yesterday said that a two-team expansion would enable the league to go to six divisions of five teams each. Realignment is strongly tied to expansion.
The league cannot realign until its current television contract is up after the 1993 season. Then, certain obvious revisions likely will be made. Among them, New Orleans and Atlanta probably will be moved from the NFC West Division. Also, Phoenix, and perhaps Dallas, may be moved out of the NFC East.
What's more, there will be considerations for enhancing the AFC's lineup with bigger TV markets. Currently, NBC carries the AFC games, and CBS carries the NFC. Because the bigger TV markets (New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Detroit) are in the NFC, there may be some teams switching conferences, as well as divisions.
The 1994 starting date also will give Tagliabue more time to hammer out a new collective bargaining agreement. The league hopes to institute a salary cap to draw the line on rookie salaries, and a cap would restore control to the owners. The NFL has been operating without a collective bargaining agreement since the players' strike of 1987.
Yesterday's move was a victory for Tagliabue, who has had to convince reluctant owners of the wisdom of expansion. The commissioner is chairman of the seven-member realignment and expansion committee. Attending yesterday's meeting were Philadelphia owner Norman Braman, San Francisco owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr., New Orleans president Jim Finks, Cleveland owner Art Modell and Pittsburgh owner Dan Rooney. Absent were New Orleans owner Tom Benson and Tampa Bay owner Hugh Culverhouse Sr.
League spokesman Greg Aiello said the league is "looking for formal approval" from the owners in next week's Minneapolis meetings. "This meeting and the one in Minneapolis are to determine the direction we're going and the timetable to some extent," Aiello said.
The meeting in New York was the third by the expansion committee since being formed in March of 1990.