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It's Houston in 2002 / NFL rejects L.A. in awarding expansion franchise

Less than seven months after conditionally awarding its 32nd franchise to Los

Angeles, NFL owners pulled a reverse yesterday and selected Houston as the next

expansion city. The team is expected to begin play in 2002.

Tired of the inability of would-be Los Angeles owners to formulate a definitive

financing and stadium plan, league owners resoundingly approved Houston

businessman Robert McNair as their new partner. McNair will pay a $700-million

franchise fee- the highest for a sports team in the United States. The

$310-million stadium plan McNair spearheaded brings the overall package to more

than $1 billion.

The owners also voted to realign the league's divisional format once the

Houston franchise is up and running. The NFL will switch from six divisions to

eight of four teams each. Houston will be placed in the AFC, meaning at least

one current AFC team will be switched to the NFC.

"It's a great day for Houston, we hope a great day for football," McNair said.

"Our facility will be second to none."

McNair's gleeful reaction to the news was in stark contrast to his mood last

March, when league owners voted overwhelmingly to award an expansion franchise

to Los Angeles, the country's second-largest television market. But continuing

problems, ranging from a lack of public funding for a hoped-for revival of the

Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, to feuding among potential ownership groups,

doomed that city's chances.

The league now will focus on seeing whether an existing team in the midst of

financial problems and/or an inadequate stadium could be relocated to Los

Angeles. Look for the Arizona Cardinals, New Orleans Saints, Minnesota Vikings

and perhaps the Buffalo Bills to be mentioned as possible candidates for


The realignment plan voted on yesterday allows the NFL to add flexibility to

its schedule while still maintaining traditional rivalries in the NFC and AFC.

According to Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney, a major proponent of

realignment, there will be six divisional games for each team plus four against

teams within the conference and four against teams outside the conference.

With two additional games left over for each team, Rooney believes creative

scheduling can create additional rivalries.

For instance, the Giants and Jets could remain in the same divisions they're in

now, yet play against each other each year. Under a plan likely to be

considered, the Cardinals would likely move out of the NFC East, leaving the

Giants, Dallas Cowboys, Washington Redskins and Philadelphia Eagles -all

long-standing rivals -in the division.

In the AFC East, the likely candidate to move would be Indianapolis, leaving

the Jets, Bills, New England Patriots and Miami Dolphins.

There likely would be a handful of teams which would switch conferences to make

more geographical sense out of the realignment.

The league would presumably keep the number of playoff teams to six per

conference. Each of the four divisional winners would reach the playoffs, along

with two wild-card teams.

New York Sports