Sometime late this month, the 13 remaining NFL owners (Cleveland, Baltimore and Pittsburgh are in the AFL next year) will probably meet in New York to try to realign the league into three divisions—two containing four teams and one five. The owners have wrangled through three meetings so far without arriving at an alignment agreeable to all of the clubs, and it's even money that it will take them somewhat longer to do so than it took the 13 colonies to come up with the Constitution.
At the moment Commissioner Pete Rozelle is seeing the owners one at a time, using his considerable powers of diplomacy. "I go to see some of them and some of them come to see me," he said last week. "When we have arrived at the best possible compromise, we'll have the meeting."
This piecemeal approach was prompted by the difficulty of discussing realignment in general session. "When all the owners are in one room, it leads to polarization and makes agreement almost impossible," says Tex Schramm, the president of the Dallas Cowboys. "We probably newer would have reached agreement on the merger if the negotiations hadn't been put on a personal level."
Three factors determine the desirability of a team as a member of a division: weather, stadium capacity and present and potential playing capability. In these regards the New Orleans Saints are the best club in the NFL: Tulane Stadium seats 80,997; New Orleans is balmy, if a bit wet at times; and the Saints are an expansion team that, most likely, is two or three years away from being a serious contender.
At the other end of the scale are the Minnesota Vikings. The Vikes play in Metropolitan Stadium, which seats only 47,693 frostbitten customers; but, more important, the Vikes are very, very good and very young. Any team in the same division with the Vikings for the next few years can expect to suffer financially, physically and in the standings.
At present the Vikings are in the Central Division with Green Bay, Detroit and Chicago, a division known, understandably, as the Snow Belt. The other three members of the division wouldn't mind sticking together if they could trade Minnesota for a team like Dallas or Atlanta. New Orleans would be acceptable, too, except that Owner John Mecom Jr. would jump to the Canadian League before he would agree.
"I think we are flexible," Schramm says, but then adds: "We're willing to go West, East or South. We train in California and we have established preseason rivalries with the Rams and the 49ers. We've played in the East ever since 1961 and we've established rivalries with the Eastern clubs. We've begun a real rivalry with New Orleans in the South and we're a Southern team anyway."
Schramm, like almost every other NFL owner or president, is hard put to discover any reason why he should move North. "It doesn't make sense," he says. "It would be difficult to establish long-range rivalries. We've spent years developing those rivalries in the East and we would have to start all over. And our location makes us a warm-weather team. Our players live and practice in warm weather. The players in Green Bay, Detroit, Chicago and Minnesota live and practice in cold weather. It's unfair to ask us to play under completely alien conditions at least three times a year."
The Cowboys would seem to be a plum for any division, but they aren't eagerly sought. The Cotton Bowl (72,000) is certainly big enough and, although Dallas isn't as warm as Los Angeles or New Orleans, it isn't frigid, either. But the Cowboys, like the Vikings, may be in the early years of a dynasty and no one wants to be locked into a division with a perennial champion.
Most clubs will compromise on stadium size or December weather; the sticking point in the negotiations has been the quality of the competition. "The weather isn't that big a factor," Rozelle points out. "To take an extreme example, say Atlanta was put into the Central Division with the four clubs already there. It wouldn't do much to the clubs now in the division. Each of them would play in Atlanta once, and all four of them couldn't play there in December. So it would probably mean a warm-weather date in December for one or two of the clubs. The same holds true, of course, for New Orleans or Dallas."
The stadium size problem can be solved by a proposal already discussed in the meetings. To make sure that there would be no disparity in attendance income, the clubs in a division would pool their away-game revenues. If, because of the luck of the intersectional draw, one club had markedly less away-game revenue at the end of the season, it would draw from the pool.
The competitive aspect is thornier, but it, too, could be solved. One suggestion is that the teams be put in divisions according to their ability, as is done in soccer in England. There, the best clubs make up the first division, second-best the second and so on. At the end of the season the top two teams in the second division move up and the bottom two teams in the first drop down, etc. This system has the advantage of keeping interest alive for last-place clubs, but it has the disadvantage of eliminating three of the four best teams from any championship playoff.
Schramm shuddered when he found out that under this scheme the Cowboys would be in a division with Los Angeles, Minnesota and Detroit. "One big problem is that no one wants to be locked into a division he doesn't like," he says. "Maybe we should have seedings. The three best teams by won-lost percentage would be split up, one to a division. Then the next three and so forth. I don't know what that would do to traditional rivalries, but it would insure against having two clubs like Baltimore and L.A. knocking each other out in the same division year after year."
Schramm's idea would put one very good, one good, one pretty good and one bad team in each division. Presumably the five-team division would have two bad clubs. "At least no one would be permanently attached to a division," he says. "It would probably be a lot easier to agree on realignment if it wasn't permanent."
By the terms of the merger only two teams are married. The Rams and the 49ers must be in the same division. The New York Giants would probably like to keep their long-standing rivalries with the Philadelphia Eagles and the Washington Redskins, and it would be unthinkable to separate the Chicago Bears and the Green Bay Packers after nearly 50 years of intercity competition.
In the horse trading to date, the owners have come up with alignments that were within one or two votes of unanimous agreement, but in each case the one or two negative votes came from teams saddled with so unfair a schedule that no one really expected them to go along. Says Rozelle: "Actually, the schedules that were fairest to most teams—or least unfair to the unhappy teams—were defeated by votes like 9-4 or 8-5."
The realignment, whatever it is, won't be permanent. Although there are no immediate plans for expansion, the NFL will, eventually, mushroom to 32 teams. "We've moved pretty fast in the last few years," Rozelle says. "We've added four expansion teams and negotiated the merger and now we have to sit back and take stock of what we've done. We have to solidify the league on quality and on economics. We aren't working on expansion, but I should think that expansion will come sometime in the next decade."
When it does come, it isn't likely to be creeping expansion, as in the past when teams were added at the rate of one a year. "We have nothing to gain by adding one, two, three or anything less than six teams," says Schramm. "The next logical change is from our present setup to 32 teams, split into eight four-team divisions, four divisions in each of two leagues, two divisions to a conference. That would lead to logical playoffs between divisions, conferences and leagues."
Rozelle agrees. Where he and Schramm differ is on possible locations but, as Rozelle points out, any discussion of sites is premature.
"I would like to see an international flavor," Schramm says. "The six new cities could be Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver, Hawaii, Mexico City and Seattle. They would all come in at once, draft veterans from the 26 existing clubs and then participate in the college draft.
"They could make up their own division for the first few years or until they reached parity with the veteran teams. That way, they wouldn't be at the bottom of a veteran division, but they would be playing the established clubs in interdivisional games. Any expansion team needs several years to catch up. Why not let all six of them catch Up together?"
There are some flaws in Schramm's proposal, which is similar to the expansion method adopted by the National Hockey League. For one, the Canadian clubs would all be cold-weather teams. As Rozelle says, "Any move into Canada would have to be predicated on domed stadiums. And there are many good locations in the United States, with more coming, I think. Places like Birmingham, Tampa, Phoenix—I don't want to get into specific locations. We have to wait and see what develops."
Obviously, when the six new teams are ready to graduate from their kindergarten division, Rozelle will have the whole realignment problem to go through once more. It won't be as easy next time, if easy is the right word. All 32 teams will be thrown into the hopper and, instead of 13 recalcitrant owners, Rozelle will be dealing with 32, 26 of whom will want to be assured of competing with at least one of the new division graduates in a domed stadium in Canada or else in Hawaii.
Last week Rozelle had set aside his realignment problems for the moment and was meeting with TV executives. Of course, the realignment must be finished in time for the NFL to renegotiate its television contracts, which expire at the end of the season; the networks aren't anxious to buy a pig in a poke. So, in the end, TV is once again the determining factor in the organization of pro football.