Can expansion move from agenda to reality? Belgrad optimistic that action is near


On a clear day -- or even a foggy one -- Herbert J. Belgrad can see expansion on the NFL horizon.

As the chairman of the Maryland Stadium Authority prepares to travel to Pasadena, Calif., this week for the NFL owners' annual spring meeting, he continues to be optimistic that the league will stick to its expansion timetable.

At this meeting, the NFL has said it will pare the list of seven expansion finalists down to at least five before naming two this fall to play in 1994. Besides Baltimore, the other six cities still in the running are St. Louis; Charlotte, N.C.; Memphis, Tenn.; Jacksonville, Fla.; Oakland, Calif.; and Sacramento, Calif.

The NFL, though, has said labor-management problems could delay expansion, and, with the NFL heading toward a major antitrust trial next month, there is much skepticism about whether the NFL will really expand later this year.

A Pro Football Weekly columnist recently wrote that commissioner Paul Tagliabue hasn't been able to accomplish much in his 2 1/2 years at the helm and added: "As for expansion, while there has been a great deal of conversation and propaganda suggesting that it is on the horizon, the fact is that it is no closer today than it was when Tagliabue took over."

Meanwhile, a Boston Globe columnist quoted an unidentified member of the expansion committee last week as saying expansion may be tabled at this meeting, which would mean the field won't be cut.

The official word from the NFL is that the plans are still to eliminate at least two cities at this meeting Tuesday and Wednesday, but a spokesman added, "plans can change." The expansion committee will meet tomorrow night to study a report prepared by the league office. It is is expected to rubber-stamp the staff's recommendations.

If the field is cut, Sacramento is expected to be eliminated. The city has had problems getting financing for a new stadium, which prompted league officials to notify the city a week ago that it would be in its best interests to get a plan finalized by this meeting.

Belgrad said he thinks this meeting will be another step on the road toward expansion.

"I wouldn't be going unless I thought it was a very important meeting," he said. "It's my opinion that they intend to move forward at this meeting and will address a number of issues."

Belgrad, who said he'd be "very disappointed" if expansion is delayed past October, also predicts that the players and owners will reach a settlement near or at the start of their June 15 antitrust trial in Minneapolis.

"I think the case will be settled either before the trial or at the trial table," he said.

If the trial -- in which the players are attempting to gain free agency --takes place, the NFL would be likely to go ahead with expansion if it wins and retains its restrictions on player movement. If the NFL loses, though, there would be so much uncertainty about the future of the league that it's unlikely the owners would be in a mood to expand.

A delay would be a setback for Baltimore, because the city's chances have never looked better. The new baseball park at Camden Yards has turned into a money machine, and a football stadium next to it has the potential to do the same for an NFL team.

Belgrad has sent a pamphlet to the owners detailing the glowing reviews the new ballpark has gotten around the country, and he hopes it will give the city's expansion bid a lot of momentum.

Meanwhile, the other leading expansion contenders have various problems. The St. Louis situation has been muddled because its chief financial backer, James Orthwein, now owns the New England Patriots. Although he hopes to sell the Patriots and eventually own a St. Louis expansion team, Orthwein would have

a difficult time finding a buyer by this fall.

In Charlotte, the plans to finance a stadium with private funds could become difficult in this uncertain economy.

In Memphis, officials are so concerned about the condition of the Liberty Bowl that they're talking about creating a sports authority in an attempt to get a new facility by the year 2000.

"Charlotte and St. Louis are hammering us pretty hard that we've got an outdated facility," said William Dunavant, a leader of the Memphis group. "It's not an outdated facility today if you compare it with other NFL facilities. But by the year 2000, we're going to need a change."

By contrast, Baltimore has the funding in place for a new football stadium.

Two of the three potential Baltimore owners, Florida businessman Malcolm Glazer and clothing store magnate Leonard "Boogie" Weinglass, are expected to attend this week's meeting. Author Tom Clancy said he has another commitment.

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