Baltimore finally is going to get a chance to make its case formally to the NFL for an expansion franchise.
At a meeting in New York yesterday, the league's expansion committee officially put the expansion process in place.
It called for interested cities to make formal application by Sept. 16. The ownership groups will have to make separate applications by Oct. 1.
The committee of owners, assisted by outside business consultants, will review the cities and recommend a list of final candidates no later than the March owners' meeting in Phoenix.
The NFL hasn't decided how many cities will make this list, and the owners have the option of changing it, although they're likely to rubber-stamp it.
The two teams are to be selected by fall 1992, and are to start play in the 1994, although the league added the proviso that expansion could be delayed if the committee decides that labor-management issues are an impediment.
The NFL owners and players are fighting each other in six different lawsuits, including one on free agency to be heard in Minneapolis on Feb. 17 that is likely to be a legal Super Bowl.
But news that the league finally has set expansion dates was greeted with enthusiasm by Herbert J. Belgrad, chairman of the Maryland Stadium Authority, and by representatives of the three groups who have announced they plan to bid to own a team in Baltimore.
Belgrad said he started attending NFL meetings in fall 1987 after the Maryland legislature passed the twin-stadium bill earlier in the year.
"Our message to the NFL was that Baltimore is ready, and we are," he said.
If Baltimore gets a team, Maryland will build a football stadium next to the baseball park under construction at Camden Yards.
The city may have suffered a setback when New York businessman Robert Tisch pulled out of the Baltimore picture to buy 50 percent of the New York Giants earlier this year.
But Belgrad said Baltimore's ownership groups stack up well against those in other cities.
"As far as I'm concerned, we have people equally qualified, and we have more of them," Belgrad said.
Groups headed by Maryland developer Nathan Landow, Baltimore Blast owner Ed Hale and former Green Bay Packers quarterback Bart Starr plan to submit applications.
Belgrad also said he's engaged in discussions with other individuals with "strong Baltimore ties" who may be interested in entering the race, but he didn't want to identify them.
Baltimore lost the Colts on the night of March 28, 1984, when owner Bob Irsay sent several moving vans to pack up the franchise for a move to Indianapolis.
Baltimore was one of three cities to lose franchises in the past decade. Oakland, Calif., in 1982, and St. Louis, in 1988, were the other two.
Although NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue has made several conflicting statements on expansion, one comment that may become a reality -- although it isn't official league policy -- is that one of the cities that lost a team will get one of the two expansion franchises.
Because Oakland's deal two years ago to get the Raiders back from Los Angeles later collapsed, it's likely that the battle for an "old city" will come down to a duel between St. Louis and Baltimore.
Among the "new" candidates are Charlotte, N.C.; Memphis, Tenn.; Jacksonville, Fla.; Sacramento, Calif.; and San Antonio.
The statement issued by the league said the application will call for information on stadium facilities, demographics, public and private support, possible ownership groups and "other pertinent material."
"I certainly feel that in those specific areas, we're highly qualified," Belgrad said.
He said that the authority already has sent much of that information to the league office in response to a phone call from the NFL in the past two weeks.
"We've been waiting for this opportunity to get the process moving," Belgrad said. "This is the beginning. We're prepared and ready to move forward."
Landow, whose group includes Herbert Haft, a Maryland businessman, and Vernon Jordan, a Washington lawyer and former head of the Urban League, said: "I think it's very exciting and encouraging. I've always felt very strongly that Baltimore had an excellent chance, or I wouldn't in in this thing. We're in it for the long pull."
Phyllis Brotman, the Baltimore advertising executive who is spokeswoman for the Starr group, said: "I'm delighted. It means they're serious about expansion. I feel very optimistic."
Brotman said her group isn't ready to identify the person who'll be the majority owner in the group. The group plans to do that sometime before making its Oct. 1 application.
Hale, who has put together a 10-member group, said: "I think this is wonderful. My main motivation is to see a football team come back to Baltimore. I want to see a football team here again."
NFL expansion timetable
Here are some key dates to remember as the NFL begins the process of adding two teams:
* Sept. 16: Completed applications from cities desiring teams due to NFL.
* Oct. 1: Completed applications from ownership groups desiring teams due to NFL.
* March 1992: Expansion committee cuts field to final candidates (number undetermined).
* Fall 1992: Expansion teams named.
* Fall 1994: Expansion teams begin play.