LOS ANGELES -- In nine months, Baltimore should learn the outcome of its nine-year quest to get an NFL expansion team.
Commissioner Paul Tagliabue outlined a new expansion timetable yesterday at his annual Super Bowl news conference when he said, "Our objective is to make some decisions on expansion, reducing the five candidates to the two final cities, this fall."
Tagliabue later said, "We're anticipating that we'll address it [expansion] in March and May and then make decisions in October."
The new teams would take the field in the fall of 1995, which would be the first time the NFL has had expansion teams playing since 1976.
Baltimore is one of the five finalists, along with St. Louis, Charlotte, N.C., Memphis, Tenn., and Jacksonville, Fla. Baltimore and St. Louis are the only cities in the expansion race to have public money to build new stadiums.
Tagliabue said the next expansion committee meeting will be held sometime before the league's March meeting.
"We need to intensify the involvement of the ownership in the expansion decision-making process," Tagliabue said.
A member of Tagliabue's staff indicated the cities will be called on to make presentations to both the seven-man expansion committee and to all 28 owners. The cities have made presentations to only the commissioner and his staff in the past.
Herbert J. Belgrad, chairman of the Maryland Stadium Authority, welcomed the opportunity to make a presentation to the entire ownership.
"I think we have a very strong and persuasive message to deliver to the owners," Belgrad said. "I'd rather have a chance to deliver it to each of the 28 owners than to rely on somebody else to deliver it for me. If they have an open mind until they hear the presentation and make a decision on what they hear, that's advantageous for us."
Belgrad also noted that Baltimore will be the host of the baseball All-Star Game in July, which will showcase the new stadium at Camden Yards and highlight the fact the city is offering to build a football stadium right next to it.
Tagliabue said the league will not ask the cities to sell season tickets to individual fans, but probably would ask them to demonstrate corporate support by selling luxury boxes.
"The specifics are yet to be worked out, but we told all the communities awhile ago that we'd want to have something with a common set of groundrules relative of a demonstration of the business community's support," Tagliabue said. "The one thing the communities were concerned about is that they'll want a common set of ground rules."
A league staff member indicated a corporate campaign might begin in July or August and be finished by September.
Baltimore has been striving for an expansion team since March 28, 1984, when the Colts made their midnight move to Indianapolis.
Three groups are vying to land a local expansion team. They are headed by Boogie Weinglass, owner of the Merry-Go-Round retail clothing chain, Maryland-based author Tom Clancy and Florida businessman Malcolm Glazer.
When Tagliabue was asked whether expansion could be delayed again for any reason, he said: "Everything I've heard from the owners, including owners on the expansion committee, is that they remain committed to expansion. Until I hear otherwise, my assumption is we're looking at progressing on the timetable and meeting it."
The owners could be encouraged to expand because the expansion fees won't count in the designated gross revenues the players will share under the new free-agency formula agreed upon earlier this month.
Tagliabue said that when the NFL put expansion on hold last September because of labor problems, it pushed back its target from 1994 to 1995, "and that continues to be our target."
In May 1991, the owners passed a resolution calling for expansion teams to start playing in 1994 if labor problems weren't an impediment. The labor problems were settled Jan. 6, when the owners and players announced a tentative legal settlement.
The only owner at the news conference, Dan Rooney, president of the Pittsburgh Steelers, said the sentiment for expansion isn't unanimous. But he predicted that the owners will give it the green light.
"There'll be some opposition, but I think the majority of people will be for it," Rooney said. "The commissioner is very much for it, and that will sway some. I think the league will expand because getting the labor situation behind us was the real concern. There'll be questions that will be raised by some, but I think we're proceeding well. As far back as the 1960s, we said we had to get to 30 teams."
With 30 teams, the league will have five divisions of six teams each. Tagliabue indicated that the league isn't likely to go beyond 30 teams any time soon.
"That [32 teams] gets us into a number of different issues in terms of how we align the league," he said. "Do we go beyond six divisions with five teams in each division? There are those kinds of considerations, as well as the future TV revenue, which would be divided two additional ways with expansion to 30. If you go beyond 30, it is divided in further additional ways and there would have to be a very different analysis in terms of the economics."
When Tagliabue was asked whether adding more than two teams would be a problem, he said, "It is a serious problem in terms of scheduling, the effect of scheduling on fan interest and the overall alignment of the two conferences."
Does that mean the league would not expand again after this fall? "I didn't say that," Tagliabue said. "This is it for this phase. If we go beyond 30, we may go to 36, who knows? At the moment, we're looking at 30, not 32, and there are good reasons for doing it that way."
Meanwhile, Belgrad is eager for the competition the next nine months will bring.
"We've been waiting for it," he said. "We're geared up. We're now in the final stages. We've got fans and community and corporate business leaders who've been asking for the opportunity to help. It'll be a busy nine months."