PALM DESERT, Calif. -- NFL expansion -- an elusive animal once feared near extinction -- has been spotted among the palm trees and crystal swimming pools of this resort city.
Increasingly, if somewhat tentatively, football owners say they are willing to revisit the issue they've delayed almost as many times as there are teams in the league.
"I think things are heating up," said Philadelphia Eagles owner Norman Braman.
The expansion committee, of which he is a member, is preparing to get more involved in issues once relegated to staffers, he said.
"The labor situation was our major impediment, and it has fallen," he said.
NFL owners reached tentative agreement with the NFL Players Association early this year, ending years of litigation that left the league in no mood for adding franchises.
Braman predicted the league will stick with its most recent timetable: naming in the fall two cities -- from among five finalists, including Baltimore -- to get teams that would begin play in 1995.
He also said he would have no objection to a new team on his southern flank.
"Baltimore would be a great city. During Baltimore's great days, Washington and Philadelphia were never affected," he said.
The expansion committee met last night and reaffirmed the tentative schedule already announced: selection of cities by this fall for play in 1995, according to one participant.
The report, to be presented to the full owners today, lays out the steps expansion will take during the next few months.
The committee will meet again next month, possibly with the finance committee, to formulate a recommended franchise fee.
The fee, which could run upwards of $150 million, will have to be approved by the full ownership at its next meeting, in May in
A decision also will be made in coming months on whether the five finalists will be asked to sell luxury suites and sky boxes as a test of market strength. Some opposition has been raised to that plan, which would be costly and inconvenient, with no guarantee that success will bring a team.
Although officials from all the cities say publicly that they relish the challenge, three of them -- Baltimore, Memphis, Tenn., and St. Louis -- are believed to oppose the plan.
Two others, Jacksonville, Fla., and Charlotte, N.C., are believed to support the plan.
James Busch Orthwein, New England Patriots owner and the head of St. Louis' bid, said he'd prefer to market all seats in an integrated manner after the franchise is awarded.
Officials with the cities say there is a lessening of enthusiasm for the idea among league officials, who now are talking about making the exercise voluntary -- if at all.
That the league is addressing such specific issues heartens leaders in the potential expansion cities, who have found their concerns often relegated to back burners at previous owners meetings.
"Everybody we are talking to is talking as though expansion's time has come," said Herbert J. Belgrad, leader of Baltimore's bid.
He said the league still could delay or cancel expansion, due to unsettled relations with television networks or problems with the new labor pact, but he considers that unlikely.
Roger Goodell, NFL vice president of operations, said: "We've gotten out from under the cloud of the labor situation, and we are ready to begin exploring new opportunities."