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Declining figures don't do a number on Tagliabue Commissioner expresses optimism, lauds Baltimore and hints at expansion

THE BALTIMORE SUN

NEW ORLEANS -- Problems?

What problems?

That was the attitude of commissioner Paul Tagliabue as he brushed off the league's declining TV ratings, sagging attendance figures, stadium problems and relocation hassles at his annual state of the league Super Bowl news conference yesterday.

"We are looking at these numbers, but we're not overly concerned," he said of the attendance and TV figures.

"I think we are far and away the No. 1 spectator sport in the country. I don't believe it's declining at all," he said.

Things are going so well that Tagliabue even raised the possibility of expanding to Cleveland and Los Angeles in 1999, although he'll have a tough time selling that idea to the owners.

He said the league had just hit a plateau after years of upward numbers.

He even lauded the Baltimore-Cleveland story as a success despite the firestorm the move of the Browns caused last year.

"I think what was done with Cleveland and with Baltimore was a, unprecedented and b, over time is going to prove one of the most foresighted things in professional sports to satisfy two communities with great tradition at one time," he said.

He conceded the "pain of the enormous hurt [in Cleveland] will never totally recede. There are still people who feel the pain of the Dodgers leaving Brooklyn, including myself. I was a Dodgers fan."

On the return of the NFL to Baltimore, he said, "I know there was tremendous excitement. I was in Baltimore in June and I met with a broad cross-section of business leaders. I know there was disappointment beginning with Art Modell and Ted Marchibroda in terms of how the team performed. Overall, I think it's been very positive and I think it'll continue to be positive, especially when they moved into their new home."

When he was asked if he plans to attend a game in Baltimore next year, Tagliabue -- who has been harshly criticized in Baltimore for opposing it in the last expansion -- said, "I would expect I'd probably attend a game in Baltimore next year. I had planned initially to try to go there this year, but I wasn't able to work it out because I had to travel on the West Coast on other business."

On upcoming expansion, he said, "The time is upon us to take a hard look at expansion to 32 [teams]. Obviously, Los Angeles would be one part of the mix. Cleveland would be another."

The league is committed to giving Cleveland an existing team or an expansion team by 1999.

But Los Angeles hasn't solved its stadium problems and at least two owners at the news conference didn't seem keen on the idea of expanding.

New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson said, "It's the first thing I heard about it. I don't sense any groundswell of support."

Bob Kraft, the owner of the New England Patriots, said, "I haven't thought about it."

The owners don't like expansion because it means a smaller piece of the TV pie for existing teams and gives the expansion teams a chance to raid their teams in a disbursement draft.

Tagliabue did say the league is facing one potential problem. It may have to pull next year's Super Bowl out of San Diego if a proposed $78 million renovation of Jack Murphy Stadium isn't approved. It would be a logistical nightmare to find a new city with less than a year's notice.

"We're going to have to think about the unthinkable, playing a Super Bowl in a city where we only have 12 months or less lead time," he said.

He also said if a proposed Boston stadium falls through, the Patriots may have to go somewhere else in New England. He said Foxboro isn't "the long-term answer."

On the league's failure to hire any minority coaches so far this year, he said that "teams are more competitive than ever" and that likely will lead to more minority hiring.

"They're looking at the widest possible pool of coaching talent," he said.

He also took a shot at Al Davis, the Oakland Raiders owner who predicted the league would double its TV revenue in the next contract.

Tagliabue said he expected a substantial increase and added, "I don't think it's sensible laying awake at night worrying about Al Davis' predictions."

Pub Date: 1/25/97

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