Expansion's final fight may go few rounds Owners lack consensus on team, voting format


It's appropriate the NFL expansion decision will be made in Chicago, a city with a rich history of holding political conventions, where power brokers made deals in smoke-filled rooms.

The atmosphere at the NFL owners meeting beginning Tuesday may be similar. There's likely to be a lot of behind-the-scenes maneuvering before Baltimore finds out if its long quest for a new team will succeed.

The only thing missing may be the smoke, when 27 men and one woman (Georgia Frontiere of the Los Angeles Rams) meet behind closed doors to decide which two of the five finalists will be awarded NFL expansion teams to take the field in 1995.

Besides Baltimore, the other finalists are Charlotte, N.C., Jacksonville, Fla., Memphis, Tenn., and St. Louis.

Not only isn't there a consensus among the owners about which teams will be picked, but there also may be a debate on how the voting is conducted.

"I think people are concerned this could turn into a marathon," said Atlanta Falcons owner Rankin Smith, a member of the expansion committee. "We'd like it to be as clean as possible."

Instead, a debate about the process may erupt into a controversy even before the owners get to picking the cities.

That's because commissioner Paul Tagliabue wants the expansion and finance committees to recommend two cities at a meeting Tuesday morning.

After the five finalists make short presentations Tuesday afternoon before the full ownership, Tagliabue wants the committees to make a joint recommendation to all the owners.

The owners would only have the option of voting yes or no for the recommendation. If the recommendation manages to get 21 votes, those two cities would be selected.

The problem is that it would only take eight owners to block that recommendation. Two owners, Lamar Hunt of the Kansas City Chiefs and Jerry Jones of the Dallas Cowboys, already have objected publicly. They say the owners should be able to vote for the cities they prefer even if they're not recommended.

"We're going in with an open mind," said Chuck Schmidt, vice president of the Detroit Lions, "but we'll do everything we can to vote for what we think are the two best cities even if that means voting against the recommendation." The NFL has not decided on an alternative if the recommendation plan is defeated.

One possible alternative would be to follow the way the league selects Super Bowl sites. No recommendation is made, but each owner votes for a candidate, and then the bottom city is eliminated after the first ballot if no city gets 21 votes. The owners then vote again.

One owner who's on the expansion committee and is a proponent of the recommendation plan argues the Super Bowl plan isn't an appropriate way to pick expansion teams.

He said that, on occasion, a leading Super Bowl contender has been eliminated on the first ballot because other cities were given courtesy votes on the first ballot by owners who planned to switch their votes later.

An independent group

In any case, getting a recommendation from a committee doesn't guarantee passage with this group of owners.

In 1989, a committee unanimously recommended that Jim Finks, general manager of the New Orleans Saints, be named commissioner to replace Pete Rozelle. But a group of new-guard owners, feeling they had been left out of the process, blocked his election and got Tagliabue elected as an alternative.

New York Giants owner Wellington Mara, who was a member of the committee that recommended Finks, said, "It shows you that nothing is written in stone."

Not that Tagliabue has had much more success in getting recommendations passed. Among other things, the owners rejected a television rebate for the networks, instant replay and reviving the World League, even though they had been recommended by committee.

A committee even recommended that Tagliabue be given a new contract at $3 million a year, and the owners cut it back to $1.6 million.

"It's a pretty independent group of people who aren't afraid to voice their opinions," said one owner.

One owner, who doesn't like all the maneuvering, said: "You've got some people who love to put together coalitions. They think it's a parliamentary system. And then you've got people who want to see how everybody else votes so they can go the other way."

Another owner predicted the two-team recommendation idea wouldn't pass. "Tagliabue doesn't have the votes," he said.

Then there's the question of whether any two-city recommendation would be unanimous.

One owner, who's not on either the expansion or finance committee, said that if the representatives from these 12 teams can unanimously agree on two teams, the recommendation likely would carry. Only nine of the remaining 16 teams would have to approve it.

"Unless you get a unanimous vote of both committees, which I can't see them doing, we're going to have some real battles," one owner said.

The owners on the committee aren't sure themselves if they can reach a unanimous agreement.

"I would like to think it's a simple process, but you just don't know," Smith said. "It's not like we held straw polls or anything."

Tagliabue avoided conducting any straw polls because the results likely would leak out. He also told the owners not to express any opinions.

In the past, one committee member, the Philadelphia Eagles' Norman Braman, and the Giants' Mara, have expressed public support for Baltimore.

But Braman would not even discuss expansion on the record last week, much less confirm whether he was still for Baltimore.

Mara said that "sentimentally," he is still fond of Baltimore, but said, "I'd tend to be guided by the committee."

Mara said that if a city he liked wasn't recommended, "I'd tend to question the recommendation and ask why."

Baltimore coalition

According to several sources around the league, Baltimore has a lot of support from a coalition of new-guard owners who like the city's financial package -- including Braman, the San Diego Chargers' Alex Spanos and Ken Behring of the Seattle Seahawks, and old-guard owners such as Mara, Hunt, Smith and Cleveland's Art Modell who remember the city's history. The owners of the two teams who played an exhibition game in Baltimore last year, the Saints' Tom Benson and Tim Robbie of the Miami Dolphins, are viewed as favorable to Baltimore.

According to a source close to him, even Al Davis, maverick owner of the Los Angeles Raiders, likes the Baltimore package, which includes at least a $1 million gate for visiting teams.

Then there are some owners who have personal reasons for favoring Baltimore. For example, the San Francisco 49ers' Eddie DeBartolo likes Baltimore because he's had business dealings with Leonard "Boogie" Weinglass, a prospective Baltimore owner, who has his Merry-Go-Round clothing shops in DeBartolo shopping malls.

But Baltimore's financial package seems to be its best asset.

"You just can't walk away from that Baltimore deal," said one owner.

That doesn't mean Baltimore will have an easy route to get an expansion team. A lot of the Baltimore support is soft in a political sense and could be swayed in behind-the-scenes lobbying.

Baltimore also lost strong advocates when Rozelle resigned in 1989 and Finks, who played in Baltimore as a quarterback for the Pittsburgh Steelers, lost in the race to succeed him and then became ill this year. He won't attend the meeting.

Tagliabue's influence

Tagliabue is widely perceived as more interested in expanding to a new city -- probably Charlotte.

"He's pushing for Charlotte harder than you think he is," said one owner.

How much of an impact Tagliabue will have is an open question.

"You listen to what Paul has to say and you respect his opinion, but again, the owners decide what they decide," said Ralph Wilson, owner of the Buffalo Bills.

Charlotte has an attractive two-state market, but it has financial problems in trying to build its stadium with private funds. Until late last week, the Charlotte group wanted to keep $3.2 million in club-seat revenue for five years -- a total of $16 million -- instead of sharing it with the visiting teams the way Baltimore would.

Charlotte originally wanted to keep the revenue for 15 years, then cut that to five years after some owners objected following Charlotte's presentation to the expansion and finance committees on Sept. 22.

Last Thursday, Charlotte's ownership group sent a letter to the NFL asking that the request be withdrawn altogether.

Without the $3.2 million diversion of club seat revenue, Charlotte projects it will pay visiting teams $1.235 million in shared ticket receipts for every game. Baltimore, Jacksonville and St. Louis project a visiting gate receipt of about $1 million each, and Memphis about $900,000. Before the change, Charlotte's visitors' share would have been $950,000. The average visitors' share in the league is $500,000.

St. Louis' problems

St. Louis is expected to be Baltimore's other main competitor. It has public funding for a new stadium, but it has run into problems because of its inability to find an owner since James Busch Orthwein, owner of the New England Patriots, pulled out of his majority ownership position because of differences with his former partner, Jerry Clinton.

Clinton is scrambling to find new investors, and one owner said, "We have to be convinced that St. Louis is viable."

Baltimore, however, has detractors, too, most of whom criticize its proximity to Washington.

There is a perception that Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke doesn't want a team in Baltimore. Although he declined to comment last week, members of the Redskins organization say he doesn't care one way or the other.

"He's got a lot more on his mind right now [the team's 1-5 record]," a member of the organization said.

Smith has said Cooke has let it be known he'd rather not have a team in Baltimore, but a source close to the Atlanta owner said that wouldn't prevent Smith from voting for Baltimore, and he is leaning toward favoring the city.

In any case, Cooke, as usual, won't attend the meeting (his son, John Kent Cooke, will represent the team), and he has little influence in league circles.

"He couldn't sway one vote," one owner said of Cooke.

Cooke is often at odds with Tagliabue and the other owners. When they voted to permit the league to assign teams to play in Europe, the vote was 27-1, with the Redskins objecting. When the league scheduled them for an exhibition game in Berlin last August, the Redskins objected they shouldn't have to make the trip two years in a row. Tagliabue finally let them out of the trip with the proviso they would go next year.

Even if the Redskins don't object, Baltimore will have to worry that some owners would prefer St. Louis on geographical grounds because that city isn't close to another team.

That Baltimore has two ownership groups -- Weinglass and Florida investor Malcolm Glazer -- might be viewed as a negative. But the owners won't decide on an owner until after they award the franchises. Having two ownership groups probably is preferable to the St. Louis situation of having a problem finding one.

Because many owners apparently haven't made up their minds, the caliber of the presentations Tuesday also could be critical.

Some still deciding

"I'm very open," said Bob Harlan, president of the Green Bay Packers. "I'm willing to listen. I owe the cities that courtesy."

Wilson said he's going in with "a totally open mind" and said: "I'm anxious to hear the presentations. It all depends on how the owners feel at that time."

But Wilson did make one distinction between Baltimore and St. Louis. He noted the league gave Bill Bidwill permission to move from St. Louis to Phoenix, but Colts owner Bob Irsay moved on his own in the middle of the night.

"Irsay didn't consult with the owners," he said.

In reading the tea leaves, Baltimore can only hope that means he'll be sympathetic to the city.

Things have changed a lot since the NFL last expanded in 1976 to Tampa Bay and Seattle.

At that time, there was much less division in the league. Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney, who ran the expansion committee, recommended the two cities at different times -- Tampa first and then Seattle -- and both recommendations were virtually rubber-stamped.

"They accepted every recommendation we made except the cost of the franchise. They jacked that up [from $8 million to $16 million]," Rooney said.

Things aren't likely to go so smoothly this time.

"It was a different time," Rooney said. "A completely different time."



EXPANSION COMMITTEE * Rankin Smith, Atlanta Falcons

Norman Braman, Phil. Eagles

* Art Modell, Cleveland Browns

* Alex Spanos, S.D. Chargers

* Hugh Culverhouse, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

* Edward DeBartolo Jr., San Francisco 49ers


FINANCE COMMITTEE * Tom Benson, N. Orleans Saints

Bud Adams, Houston Oilers

* Lamar Hunt, K.C. Chiefs

* Mike McCaskey, Chicago Bears

* Robert Tisch, New York Giants

* Ken Hoffman, Sea. Seahawks

* Carmen Policy, S.F. 49ers

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