NFL prepares to bask in glowing memories and splashy TV ratings


Just in case you were too caught up in the All-Star frenzy to notice, the NFL season is at hand.

All the training camps will be open by Saturday and ABC, ESPN and NBC will be televising exhibition games next weekend.

This is the start of the NFL's 74th season, a year that shapes up as a historic one because the league will expand for the first time in two decades.

It's also the 35th, 30th and 25th anniversaries of three important events of the modern era.

It was 35 years ago that the Colts-Giants 1958 overtime game started the pro football boom. It's still the single most significant game in league history.

It was 30 years ago that commissioner Pete Rozelle suspended Paul Hornung and Alex Karras for gambling on games.

That bold move solidified his position as the most powerful commissioner in sports and gave him the clout to persuade the owners to merge with the AFL and invent "Monday Night Football."

It was 25 years that the Jets upset the Colts in Super Bowl III in what is generally considered the second most important game. It gave the AFL equality and ushered in the post-merger era.

Those three events helped make the NFL what it is today -- the most popular sports league.

No other sport draws the kind of national TV ratings that the NFL does. Take the All-Star Game, for example.

It was a big deal in Baltimore, but got only a 15.6 rating (percentage of TV sets) around the country. By contrast, the average Monday night rating last year was 16.8.

Now that the NFL has labor peace with a salary cap for the rest of the decade, the future couldn't look better.

The league's only real problem is complacency. The NFL is so popular it could easily go to 36 or 40 teams.

Instead, it's content to stop at 30.

Commissioner Paul Tagliabue floated a trial balloon in Dallas last week when he brought up the suggestion of going to 32 teams.

"I find there is real enthusiasm in the league to take it to the next step and add to 32 teams. We will not do that this year, but it will be something looked at in the future," he said.

The owners aren't likely to do much more than look at it. They don't want to divide the TV pie any more ways.

They're more than content to sit back and enjoy the status quo.

The expansion derby

When Tagliabue was asked at a news conference in Dallas last week if St. Louis was a lock in the expansion derby, he said, "St. Louis is no more of a lock than the Cowboys are in the Super Bowl."

Cowboys owner Jerry Jones then piped up and said, "Book St. Louis for a franchise."

They weren't asked about Baltimore, but Jones' enthusiasm for St. Louis could be good news for Baltimore because it is the only other city with public funding for a stadium.

The public funding is the reason Baltimore and St. Louis have the best financial deals and two unrelated events recently show how much stock the owners are putting in financial matters.

Last week, owner Art Modell of the Cleveland Browns was booted off the TV committee even though he negotiated $8.4 billion worth of contracts during the past three decades. The BTC league announced it as a resignation, but Modell was pushed out.

Modell is of the old-school idea that the NFL should be partners with the TV networks. Modell and Rozelle always believed it was in the best interests of the NFL that the networks make money on the NFL contracts. That's obsolete thinking in today's NFL.

The current thinking is that the networks should be willing to treat the NFL as a loss leader because it gets them such good ratings.

The owners no longer care if the networks lose money as long as they make it.

The other recent event that showed the emphasis on money came when Tagliabue negotiated a contract extension.

Tagliabue convinced a committee of Tom Benson of the New Orleans Saints, Bud Adams of the Houston Oilers and Alex Spanos of the San Diego Chargers that he should get a $3 million salary to put him in the same league with David Stern, the NBA commissioner.

The other owners, though, balked at paying Tagliabue that much.

They cut his salary to $1.6 million.

The $1.4 million cutback was a savings of $50,000 per club.

All this makes it more likely the owners will take the best financial deals in expansion -- which means St. Louis and Baltimore.

The selling game

Baltimore will file its first report on its premium seat sales campaign tomorrow. Herbert Belgrad, the chairman of the Maryland Stadium Authority, said the city is past the halfway mark in the selling of the 100 luxury boxes and at about the halfway mark in selling the 7,500 club seats.

Belgrad said one unexpected problem is that he has about 16 applications for the most expensive luxury boxes -- $105,000 -- and only eight of those boxes are available.

"Our mistake is that we probably should have had 16 at the highest price," Belgrad said. Some groups are offering to buy a second one to guarantee getting one of the most expensive ones.

In the selling of club seats, Belgrad said he wants to put emphasis on the so-called Six Pack plan for the average fan.

If a group of six friends get together, they can buy two club seats for at little as $233 each (plus the cost of the tickets). That guarantees they can buy four more regular-season tickets.

Predicting victory

Jimmy Johnson, Dallas Cowboys coach, doesn't seem worried that quarterback Troy Aikman is sidelined after back surgery and Emmitt Smith is likely to be a long holdout.

"I hope Troy's healthy, and I hope Emmitt's under contract, but whoever we have, that's who we'll beat Washington with [in the opener]," he said.

Johnson doesn't mind inflaming the opposition.

"I think we inflame people just with our personality so I might as well say it. I'd rather say it publicly than hem and haw around publicly and behind closed doors say, 'We're going to kick their rears,' " he said.

Johnson also is denying a report in a new book excerpted in Sports Illustrated that he said that his girlfriend knows more football than owner Jerry Jones does.

"Not only did I never say that, but her name was misspelled," Johnson said.

It's not exactly news that Johnson and Jones aren't the best of friends even though they were roommates in college. The real problem is that both Jones and Johnson think they should get all the credit for the team's success.

Getting out

Quarterback Jeff George is the latest Colt who wants out of Indianapolis. He's holding out even though he's being fined $4,000 a day and the Colts are refusing to trade him.

The Colts gave up a No. 1 pick and two Pro Bowlers (Andre Rison and Chris Hinton) for George. He hasn't lived up to that billing. Nobody would trade George now even up for Rison, who's caught more passes than any player in the first four years of his career.

But then trading is not the Colts' forte.

In the past six years, they've traded four No. 1 picks, two second-round picks and three Pro Bowlers (Rison, Hinton and Cornelius Bennett) for Eric Dickerson, Fredd Young and George. Dickerson is gone, Young is out of football and George is holding out.

This is the Colts' 10th year in Indianapolis, but the franchise hasn't changed much.

Buddy speaks

Buddy Ryan, the new defensive coordinator of the Houston Oilers, wasn't impressed when linebacker Lamar Lathan complained about being benched:

"I don't give a damn what he thinks. I've benched better players than him."

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