Publish date:

The NFL's expansion plan is zero population growth

Pro football "guaranteed" Congress that it would keep adding new franchises, but applicants are discovering that it's "don't-call-us"

On Wednesday, Sept. 6, representatives from four cities—Memphis, Phoenix, Seattle and Tampa—gathered in New York's St. Regis Hotel prior to a meeting the next day with National Football League executives concerning expansion. The meeting had originally been announced as early as May, and in the intervening time all but Phoenix had hosted NFL exhibition games. Forty-four thousand had turned out in Seattle to see the New York Jets play the Pittsburgh Steelers. In Memphis the Steelers had faced New Orleans, a lackluster matchup that still managed to draw 43,000. In Tampa, where the Baltimore Colts had played three exhibitions, crowds had averaged 40,000, which is 25,000 more than they had averaged in Baltimore the summer before.

So it was not without some flush of success that these men prepared for their long-expected meeting with Commissioner Pete Rozelle. Normally competitors, they had agreed to an intracity truce best described as tenuous. Tampa's Bill Marcum, for instance, had prepared a press summary of pertinent data about his city on two separate handouts. The first merely detailed Tampa's qualifications as an expansion site; the second, which could be produced if the four-city harmony faded, boosted Tampa at the expense of the other three.

As it turned out, Marcum never produced either sheet. When the appointed moment for their audience arrived, they were told, "The commissioner is out of the office today." Some of Rozelle's lieutenants presided instead, but they provided little more than attentive ears. For their months of hope, about all the applicants got was an admonishment for letting news of the meeting get in the papers. Expansion is a hot issue that chills the NFL. Although Kansas City Owner Lamar Hunt has asked that the issue be placed on the annual NFL meeting agenda, all Rozelle will say is, "I believe there will be expansion in this decade."

If pro football finds the subject of expansion vexing, it has only itself to blame. Late in 1966 when the league was desperate for merger approval, expansion was proffered to Congress as a reason for giving pro football an antitrust exemption. Without a merger, Capitol Hill was told, franchises would fold under the financial pressure of a bidding war; with it, the league could spread to new cities all over the great American gridiron. The NFL promised two new sites by 1968. New Orleans even got its franchise a year ahead of time, which was not surprising considering the legislative role played in the merger by Louisiana's Senator Russell Long and Congressman Hale Boggs. Before a House antitrust subcommittee, Rozelle stated that the league would study the possibility of more expansion, and he claimed that a merger would "guarantee" such growth. Yet at the Sept. 7 meeting Rozelle's stand-in said that no such study ever has been made. And those cities that relied on the "guarantee" rather than political favors are still without a franchise. The result is some aggrieved municipalities.

The owners in professional football want to stand pat for approximately the same reason that your neighborhood grocer does not welcome a new Safeway on the block. Exactly [1/26] of television revenue is better than [1/28] or [1/30]. Also, owners like to cite the paucity of talent already caused by expansion, though that posture pales on cutdown days when coaches harbor third-stringers like All-Pros. To avoid suggestions of greed, most owners claim they are ready for expansion whenever the league office gives the go-ahead. The league office protests that it just works for the owners and is only following orders.

It is estimated that it would cost $15 million for a new NFL franchise, with the incumbent clubs dividing that money equally. The sum is supposedly the value of the 30 to 40 players turned over by the existing clubs (meaning that second-string tackles making $20,000 a year are suddenly worth $400,000). Citing this disparity, Ed Garvey, the executive director of the NFL Players Association, promises that when he renegotiates his group's contract in 1974 he will try to secure a major share of any expansion entry fee for the players' pension fund.

But Garvey may be too late. In the proposed pro basketball merger bill, the Senate recommended that no ABA team would have to pay an indemnity to join the NBA except for a television fee. It is not hard to imagine a similar political attitude about the NFL.

Of the four cities bidding for an NFL franchise, Seattle is the largest. It is the 17th most populous metropolitan area in the nation. The Seattle Kings, the prospective NFL team that is being bankrolled at $100,000 a year by Minneapolis businessman Wayne Field, already have a four-room suite of offices and a general manager, Hugh McElhenny, of University of Washington and San Francisco 49er fame. But other potential Seattle owners also are surfacing. Attempting to secure Field's claim to any future franchise, McElhenny had NFL Properties, Inc., a company whose profits are divided equally among the league's 26 teams, design uniforms for the Kings, and before the year is out he and Field plan to pay a visit, hopefully ingratiating, to every NFL club.

Seattle seems to have hurdled the last environmental challenge blocking construction of a $40 million domed stadium, originally approved in 1968. University of Washington regents have sanctioned interim use of the Huskies' field, which is something Arizona State has refused to do for the citizens of Phoenix. Construction of a new stadium in Phoenix cannot be too far away, though, since the only real squabble delaying a 65,000-seat structure there is whether it is to be an $18 million "bare bones" model or a lavish $25 million spectacular.

Memphis, much the smallest of the four hopefuls, already has a new 50,000-seat municipal park, which has been the site of six exhibitions. But only one of these games drew more than 35,000, and Memphis suffers from a serious lack of civic involvement (though it did send representatives to the meeting. Two other possible expansion sites, Jacksonville and Honolulu, have made no concrete overtures at all to the NFL). When Lamar Hunt was looking for a new home for his Dallas Texans, he considered Memphis but got the cold shoulder from a city leadership skeptical of the AFL's financial future. A promoter named Mike Lynn heads the Memphis effort, but for a potential owner he had to go to Dallas, where he enlisted the support of Herman Lay, founder of the potato-chip firm.

Tampa seems best qualified as an expansion site. Big business remained uncertain about the Cigar City despite its own wishful billing as the South's next Atlanta until Walt Disney bought 27,400 acres just 68 miles to the east, near Orlando. Orlando has its own NFL hopes, but Tampa tries to blunt that intramural competition by suggesting Orlando is nothing more than a part of its own television market area. Tampa is the larger of the two cities, and with the completion of its new airport, which comes to you direct from Tomorrowland, Tampa is experiencing a boom.

Tampa's pro football hopes date from the 1967 completion of a 46,700-seat municipal stadium, one that can be expanded to hold 70,000. For less than $250,000, it could be temporarily enlarged to 60,000. Marcum, a 6'5", 37-year-old Florida native, ran the first exhibition game there for the Jaycees. When 42,000 people turned out, he quit his job to promote pro football full time, and the following year he won the presidency of the Jaycees in a landslide. He has continued to head an aggressive civic drive highlighted by nine other games averaging 40,000 in attendance, a growing television market already larger than those of seven NFL cities and a glamorous potential part owner in golf's Jack Nicklaus.

Last summer the Baltimore Colts headquartered in Tampa. Marcum sold "season tickets" for the three Colt games and put the buyers' names into a computer, guaranteeing them the same seats if the disgruntled Colt management should permanently forsake Baltimore for Tampa. That hope disappeared when Colt Owner Carroll Rosenbloom traded the franchise for the Rams, but Tampans can still retain their rights by exercising their ticket options at each future exhibition. For Marcum, the computer file represents a form of insurance. When a franchise does arrive in Tampa, he will own the only list of the 33,000 season ticket-holders. That should assure him of a job with the new club.

But Marcum faces the same problem as the civic leaders in other cities. His future is tied to the NFL, a reality that prohibits him from applying the sort of pressure for expansion that the issue of antitrust could provide. To start a pro football franchise today, a would-be operator has two choices. He can plead to the league for approval and pay the huge initiation fee if accepted. That was the routine for as long as the league demonstrated a willingness to expand. If, on the other hand, it can be proved in court that the NFL is prohibiting expansion, then it may be wisest not to beg for admission, but to sue for it. So far the league has been able to count on the fact that no petitioner would dare risk angering it. If the NFL is in violation of antitrust laws, the courts conceivably could order expansion. The legislative exemption acquired by the NFL in 1966 spares it from antitrust litigation only insofar as the merger itself was concerned.

One other avenue is that taken by Hunt and other AFL organizers 13 years ago. It can be convincingly argued that the formation of the AFL was no more than an attempt to gain entry into the NFL without an entry fee. Take the millions that the owners get for second-stringers and pay it directly to the talent and it would be possible to acquire some blue-chip players in a hurry. The World Hockey Association is trying to prove the worth of that strategy right now. "The situation is ripe for a Lamar Hunt," said one of the visitors to New York last month.

The NFL may not be able to avoid expansion action too long. Most of its reasons for delay will run out in 1974 when player association and television contracts come up for renewal and the last of the expansion-club payments will be made. Cincinnati, the newest team in professional football, will be in its seventh season that year. NFL owners may have to face up to the fact that having created an opiate for the people, they can no longer deny it to those who can support the habit.