When NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue announced last evening that the new Browns franchise will enter the league in '99 as an expansion team, the decision "caught many attending the league meetings by surprise," according to Tony Grossi of the Cleveland PLAIN-DEALER. It "followed roughly one hour of discussion on the subject" by team owners and "concluded a down-and-up day that began with Cleveland officials fearing a delay." Speculation had the league "unprepared to commit to expansion this week," but the owners "retreated to their meeting room, and everything seemed to change." Finally, "no vote was taken, but no owner dissented" on the expansion decision. Tagliabue credited Panthers Owner Jerry Richardson for "leading the discussion on expanding and swaying owners." Steelers President Dan Rooney said Ravens Owner Art Modell also "played a prominent role." Grossi notes "two other surprises" in the announcement: The Browns' debut will come at the Pro Football Hall of Fame Game in Canton against the Cowboys in August of '99; and Joe Mack, former Assistant GM of the Panthers, will be the Browns' Player Personnel Director (Cleveland PLAIN-DEALER, 3/24). While no expansion fee has been finalized, some NFL owners "have already" floated a $350-$500M fee (Cleveland PLAIN-DEALER, 3/24). BURIED LEGACY: In Akron, David Adams writes the expansion decision ends "the chance of Cleveland getting a relocated team" and also "helps bury the painful legacy left behind by the abrupt 1995 decision by Art Modell to move his team to Baltimore." Modell: "I was one of the people who wanted to get this done" (AKRON BEACON JOURNAL, 3/24). WHO WILL BE 32? Tagliabue said that the owners will hold talks today concerning the next round of expansion, mentioning L.A., Houston and Toronto as cities vying to be the 32nd team. In Toronto, Mike Zeisberger says Toronto's inclusion "caught everyone ... off-guard" as its chances "never had been put forward in this manner by Tagliabue" (TORONTO SUN, 3/24). In Houston, John Williams calls the decision "good news" for that city's bid, as had the league moved an existing team to Cleveland, "it was possible that league owners would not expand at all," as it would mean sharing TV revenues (HOUSTON CHRONICLE, 3/24). Saints Owner Tom Benson, on future expansion: "Oh, man. You're looking at a few more years for those teams" (USA TODAY, 3/24).
Leagues Governing Bodies
MLS had a full schedule of games over the weekend as its third season opened league-wide. An announced crowd of 36,281 attended the Clash-Galaxy game at the Rose Bowl, top among the league's weekend gate (THE DAILY). A crowd of 18,108 attended DC United's home opener Saturday night against the Wizards at RFK Stadium. In DC, Steven Goff reported that "miserable weather certainly was a factor" in the team's smallest opening night crowd in its three-year history, and that it was "apparent that many fans from the Latin American community, angered by the trade of Salvadoran star Raul Diaz Arce, did not show." DC United drew 35,0032 for their home opener in '96 and 28,749 last season (WASHINGTON POST, 3/23). The Fusion drew 14,653 Saturday night at Lockhart Stadium for their game versus the Fire. It was the Fire's inaugural MLS game (CHICAGO TRIBUNE, 3/22). In Ft. Lauderdale, Michael Mayo said that the Fusion's "novelty factor has faded" in its second game, and that some of the announced crowd was "lured by a Ziggy Marley concert after the game" (SUN-SENTINEL, 3/22). In Tampa, the Mutiny drew 16,221 for their opener against the Crew at Houlihan's Stadium (TAMPA TRIBUNE, 3/22). The Burn drew 11,103 against the Rapids at the Cotton Bowl (DALLAS MORNING NEWS, 3/22). MLS FACES TESTS: In N.Y., George Vecsey profiled MLS Commissioner Doug Logan, and wrote Logan is "talking up the concept of his league's being No. 4 1/2 among major sports. He would like his league to feel like the sport of the people." Vecsey: "We could use one of those, what with the four established leagues rapidly becoming dominated by conglomerations, aiming at corporate clients." Logan: "The biggest piece of garbage in American sports is the luxury box, with it couches faced away from the field, facing a huge color television set, with everybody eating sushi." Logan said MLS's "four separate groups" of fans include the purists, kids who play soccer, Hispanics and the general sports fan, "the guy who reads his newspaper back to front, the baseball fan who is tired of the players. That's our largest work in progress" (N.Y. TIMES, 3/22).
NBA owners voted 27-2 yesterday to reopen their CBA with the players and "the next three-and-a-half months will determine if this decision results in a civilized duel or labor Armageddon," according to David Moore of the DALLAS MORNING NEWS. The CBA, which had three years remaining, now expires June 30. After the vote, NBA Commissioner David Stern "chose his words carefully, repeatedly refusing to say if the owners would impose a lockout if the two sides can't find common a ground before the contract expires." Stern: "We don't want to speculate." But he did talk of a "threshold of pain" that had been put upon the owners in the current deal and said "no fair-minded person" could say the system is working. Stern: "Rather than focus on specific exceptions, what we'd like to do is say to the players, 'let's agree on a fair split and work with us. Whatever we promise you will get paid, no less and no more.'" Moore: "This means that owners will seek a hard cap to replace the soft cap that now exists. ... The owners focus is to find a way to bring salaries, which are escalating at 14 to 15 percent, in line with the nine to 10 percent growth in league revenues." The NBA and NBPA are schedule to meet on or about April 1 (DALLAS MORNING NEWS, 3/24). Stern: "It's our view that we're close to a system that works, but we didn't quite hit it this last time" (THE DAILY). In Orlando, Tim Povtak speculates that the Heat and Lakers were the two dissenting votes (ORLANDO SENTINEL, 3/24). RESPONSE: NBPA Exec Dir Billy Hunter, in a statement: "It is unfortunate the owners have chosen to forfeit three years of guaranteed labor peace at a time when the industry is so obviously healthy. ... Nonetheless, we are prepared to negotiate with the understanding that every facet of the [CBA] is open for discussion" (WASHINGTON POST, 3/24). ADD IT UP: Speaking in a conference call, NBA Deputy Commissioner Russ Granik said players will receive about $995M, or 57.2%, of the league's projected $1.783B in basketball-related income (BRI) this season. That is $160M more than the percentage on which "the league's ceiling on player payroll, or salary cap, is calculated." The league is "obligated to pay" 48.04% of BRI, or $835M this season. The owners can re-open if the total exceeds 51.8%, or around $900M (Mark Asher, WASHINGTON POST, 3/24). Hunter "disputes some of the percentages tossed around by the league," saying his figures show 55% of BRI will go to player salaries. He also pointed to money the owners receive that is excluded from BRI -- naming rights, signage, team merchandising and a percentage of luxury suite revenue -- "in questioning any economic hardship the league claims." But he did call the idea of bringing salaries in line with revenues a "prudent approach" (DALLAS MORNING NEWS, 3/24). Granik said each team will average $23M per year for the next four years of the current TV deal and gave the example of the T-Wolves paying $21M per year to Kevin Garnett: "[E]ssentially you've given away all your network television revenue. Obviously you have other sources of income, but on a long term basis, that's not a healthy situation (N.Y. TIMES, 3/24). USA TODAY's David DuPree reports that during a work stoppage, NBC and Turner would "make rights fee payments for as long as a year. They'd get reduced payments" in the final year of the deal (USA TODAY, 3/25). DRAFT DODGERS? In N.Y., Mike Wise reports that with "no idea of how the current rookie salary scale will be affected, some of the nation's top college underclassmen might decide to remain in school" (N.Y. TIMES, 3/24). Stern: "I think you can speculate that if you're an undergraduate thinking about applying, you might have some second thoughts if you don't like uncertainty" (THE DAILY). REAX: In Philadelphia, Stephen Smith writes the vote "could lead to a lockout this summer." He adds that front- office officials from each NBA team were instructed not to discuss the labor matter publicly and threatened with an "automatic" $1M fine (PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER, 3/24). In N.Y., Stefan Fatsis calls the move "risky" for a league "that has never lost a game to a work stoppage" (WALL STREET JOURNAL, 3/24). In Milwaukee, D. Orlando Ledbetter takes an extensive look at the league's labor woes and writes the vote is the "first shot in what promises to be a titanic labor battle." Ledbetter adds said that Hunter "figures to be more formidable opponent" than former NBPA Exec Dir Simon Gourdine. Agent Charles Tucker: "They can't mess it up any worse than what Gourdine and his team did. That was a complete sellout" (MILWAUKEE JOURNAL SENTINEL, 3/24). In Seattle, Steve Kelly wrote under the header, "Image-Poor NBA Faces Ugly Offseason," and added that one "can't hide the fact the NBA is in trouble" (SEATTLE TIMES, 3/23). PLAYER AND COACHES REAX: Pistons Player Rep Jerome Williams: "Our major concern would be them putting a hard cap on players' salaries" (DETROIT FREE PRESS, 3/24). The Rockets' Eddie Johnson: "It's going to be bad because I don't think they realize how strong the union is now" (HOUSTON CHRONICLE, 3/24). Mavs GM/coach Don Nelson: "We've made plans for a busy off-season, but it looks like we'll have to trash them" (FT. WORTH STAR-TELEGRAM, 3/24). RAPTORS SALE UPDATE: The league's ownership committee recommended that the league approve the Raptors sale to Maple Leaf Gardens. A vote will take place by fax this week and approval "should take place without any problems" (TORONTO SUN, 3/24). But David Shoalts of the GLOBE & MAIL said the purchase will be delayed "at least another month" until owners meet April 21 in New York (GLOBE & MAIL, 3/24).
NFL owners ratified an extension of the CBA through the year 2003, but after a "passionate speech" by Giants co- Owner Wellington Mara, "things were much closer than expected," according to Mike Freeman of the N.Y. TIMES. Although the final vote was 28-1, with Raiders Owner Al Davis abstaining, the situation "was much tighter -- and dramatic -- than was publicly made known." Mara is against a provision guaranteeing contracts for certain players in the new deal, and Freeman writes, "After what one owner described as an incredible speech by Mara, an unofficial poll was taken" and the measure was stuck at 22 votes, one short of the required 23 for passage. Freeman: "But after some rallying by supporters of the extension, the official vote was taken, and at that point a small number of owners changed their vote" (N.Y. TIMES, 3/24). Eagles Owner Jeffrey Lurie said that while "about" ten owners were against the guarantee provision, the majority decided that "labor peace and other aspects of the deal outweighed that one issue" (Phil Sheridan, PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER, 3/24). GET-TOUGH POLICY: In Milwaukee, Tom Silverstein writes that the league also took an "unprecedented measure to punish those who can't abide by society's rules" with a misconduct policy that gives the league power to suspend players who plead guilty to or are convicted of violent crimes. The policy has been in place since last August, but was not enforced league-wide. This policy is fully enacted July 1 and gives the commissioner oversight to determine punishment for repeat offenders. Tagliabue: "We want to deter the misconduct and one way to deter misconduct is to impose discipline" (MILWAUKEE JOURNAL SENTINEL, 3/24). The measure effects all NFL employees (Ron Borges, BOSTON GLOBE, 3/24). Among acts specifically mentioned in the new policy: hate crimes, domestic violence, use or threat of physical violence and illegal possession or distribution of weapons (Ira Miller, S.F. CHRONICLE, 3/24). USA TODAY's Larry Weissman writes the measure takes "bold steps against athletes convicted of violent crimes" (USA TODAY, 3/24). FROM TAGS TO RICHES? Owners also voted unanimously to give Tagliabue a five-year contract extension to 2005. Tagliabue has been in office since November '89 and had two years left on his contract that was reportedly worth about $2.5M per year. No salary figures were released by the league, but sources say it will double to "at least" $5M a year (Leonard Shapiro, WASHINGTON POST, 3/24). NOTEBOOK: Patriots Owner Robert Kraft was named Chair of the Finance Committee for a four-year term (BOSTON GLOBE, 3/24)....Tagliabue discussed a plan where the league and NFLPA would pledge money towards new stadium construction. He said the plan was in the initial stages and called it "a complicated subject" (ROCKY MOUNTAIN NEWS, 3/24).
The NHLPA is "concerned" about a growing trend among player agents to recruit 13-and 14-year-old players and "is monitoring the situation," according to Alan Adams of the TORONTO STAR, in a follow-up to his Sunday feature on hockey agents. The NHLPA's J.P. Barry: "It hasn't been brought up to the player reps (who meet in the summer), but we have been monitoring and watching the amount of recruitment." Barry added that the union "would impose age restrictions and sanctions against agents who broke the rules only if NHL players wanted it done" (TORONTO STAR, 3/24). NOTES: In Philadelphia, Rich Hoffman writes that an NHL owner "salivates over the playoffs. For some teams, the difference between losing money and breaking even is the playoffs. For other teams, the difference between breaking even and making a good buck is the playoffs." Hoffman adds that the Flyers "probably" earn $1.5M per home playoff game (PHILADELPHIA DAILY NEWS, 3/24)....Hawks Owner Bill Wirtz, on the league stopping play during the Olympics: "I was raised that you think of season-reservation holders first, second and third. ... I believe in never demeaning the regular season" (CHICAGO TRIBUNE, 3/22).