OK, let's assume the NFL really is going to expand in this millennium as promised. Expansion means realignment and realignment means trouble.
At least it did the last time the NFL tried it. That was in 1970, four years after the merger with the despised AFL. When then-commissioner Pete Rozelle forced the issue, he encountered a room full of reluctant owners. It took names drawn from a hat to realign, and a $1 million carrot to get three teams to jump to the newly created AFC. Those three teams were Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Cleveland.
Realignment promises to be no less difficult this time around. But it is every bit as necessary, both for economic and geographic reasons. When the current TV contract expires after the 1993 season, the NFL owners need to present a package that keeps the networks feeling both happy and generous. And the league must address some glaring geographic inconsistencies. New Orleans and Atlanta do not belong in the NFC West. Neither does Phoenix fit in the NFC East.
The problem is that only a few teams appear eager or willing to change division allegiances. Tampa Bay, currently in the NFC Central, would love to create a rivalry with cross-state Miami, now in the AFC East. Indianapolis wants to pursue rivalries in the Midwest, like with Chicago. New Orleans and Atlanta want to cut down on exorbitant travel budgets by eliminating some West Coast flights.
Most teams want to stay put, though. Cleveland, for instance, would never consider giving up its rivalry with Pittsburgh. Same goes for Kansas City and the L.A. Raiders. And neither does Dallas want to give up its ties to the NFC East, where it has fashioned strong rivalries with the New York Giants, Philadelphia Eagles and Washington Redskins.
"I don't see a major shakeup coming," Dallas owner Jerry Jones said.
Yet many people around the league feel a move by Dallas to the west is inevitable in the big picture. Similarly, several teams will face some hard decisions when realignment heats up.
"It's important to think long-range in these decisions," said Jim Irsay, the Colts' general manager. "We would [be open to changing divisions]. There'd be some great rivalries in the Midwest. It's something we'd definitely consider. There are always financial factors. You would need to look at the gates you're giving up and the ones you're getting into."
The three biggest considerations of realignment will be geography, tradition and TV market. From a network standpoint, there exists an imbalance in attractive TV markets. Because CBS carries NFC games, it gets the lion's share of major markets. The NFC is in eight of the nation's top 10, including the top five.
NBC, which carries AFC games, is in only four of the top 10. And two of those teams -- the Raiders and New England Patriots -- almost never sell out, thus depriving NBC of high ratings from home games sent into the Los Angeles and Boston markets.
So, to make everyone happy, the NFL must give NBC better markets and, at the same time, not shortchange CBS. The league must ensure that long-standing rivalries remain intact. And it must capitalize on untapped geographic possibilities.
With all of that in mind, we offer two scenarios for realignment. Scenario I is if Baltimore and Charlotte are granted expansion teams. Scenario II is if the choices are St. Louis and Charlotte. Any number of mental gymnastics could be done to accommodate the other expansion hopefuls in Memphis, Jacksonville, Oakland, San Antonio, Sacramento and Portland.
In Scenario I, the AFC (and NBC) gets new TV markets in Atlanta (12), Tampa (13) and Baltimore (22), while losing San Diego (25) and Buffalo (37).
In that alignment, Baltimore could move into an AFC Southern Division with Miami, the New York Jets, Atlanta and Tampa Bay. Why not put Baltimore in the NFC East with Washington, Philadelphia and the Giants? Because the networks probably wouldn't go for it, especially NBC, which could use Baltimore's TV clout on the East Coast.
An AFC North Division keeps alive the Pittsburgh-Cleveland-Cincinnati rivalry, while adding Indianapolis and New England. In the West, Houston might not be opposed to new geographic rivalries with Kansas City and Denver, not to mention playing the Raiders.
This realignment would put NBC in six of the top 12 TV markets and not significantly damage CBS.
Charlotte, then, could join the Giants, Eagles, Redskins and Buffalo in the NFC East. The NFC Central Division would lose Tampa Bay but add New Orleans. The NFC West would keep holdovers San Francisco and the Los Angeles Rams, while adding Dallas and Phoenix from the NFC East, and San Diego from the AFC West.
In Scenario II, both expansion teams would go to the AFC, St. Louis to the Western Division and Charlotte to the South. St. Louis is a natural rival for Kansas City, and that frees Houston to go to the South with Miami, Atlanta, Tampa and Charlotte. The North would merge Pittsburgh and Cleveland with the Jets,Indianapolis and New England. The AFC comes out with seven of the top 13 markets in this scenario.
In the NFC, Dallas, Phoenix and San Diego again would join the 49ers and Rams in the West, and New Orleans would go into the Central. The East would become, for now, anyway, the toughest division in football with the Giants, Eagles, Redskins, Bills and Cincinnati Bengals.
WHAT THE NFL COULD LOOK LIKE
* Realignment if Baltimore and Charlotte gain expansion franchises.
AFC WEST: Denver, Houston, Kansas City, L.A. Raiders, Seattle.
* Realignment if St. Louis and Charlotte gain expansion franchises.
AFC WEST: Denver, Kansas City, L.A. Raiders, St. Louis, Seattle.
AFC SOUTH: Atlanta, Charlotte, Houston, Miami, Tampa Bay.
AFC NORTH: Cleveland, Indianapolis, New England, N.Y. Jets, Pittsburgh.
NFC WEST: Dallas, L.A. Rams, Phoenix, San Diego, San Francisco.
NFC CENTRAL: Chicago, Detroit, Green Bay, Minnesota, New Orleans.
NFC EAST: Buffalo, Cincinnati, N.Y. Giants, Philadelphia, Washington.