NFL owners Wednesday approved a 31-team schedule for next season, a slate that will put six teams in the AFC Central and give one team a bye every week.
In addition, New Orleans was awarded its ninth Super Bowl, beating out San Diego for the rights to the 2002 NFL title game.
The NFL was forced to change its current scheduling format with the addition of the Cleveland Browns, who will become the sixth team in the AFC Central. That division will feature a scheduling quirk in which the first two teams in the division play two non-division AFC opponents and the bottom four squads play three non-division AFC teams.
Putting the six teams in the AFC Central ended speculation that the league was considering radical realignment with four divisions consisting of four teams each in the AFC.
On Tuesday, one group from Houston and two groups from Los Angeles made their pitches for an expansion team as the NFL owners meetings began. Owners are expected to decide in March when they plan to add a 32nd franchise.
Houston might have gained a leg up on Los Angeles earlier this month when businessman Robert McNair signed a memorandum of understanding with city and Harris County officials for a $350 million stadium that presently is about one-third complete.
However, the NFL is still itching to return a team to Los Angeles, the nation's No. 2 television market.
Two groups made presentations Tuesday for Los Angeles. Former Disney executive Michael Ovitz heads one star-studded group that features Shaquille O'Neal of the Los Angeles Lakers and actors Kevin Costner and Tom Cruise. The other group, the New Coliseum Partners, is headed by co-Los Angeles Kings owner Edward Roski.
Ovitz has plans to build a stadium in Carson, California, about 10 mles south of the Los Angeles airport. The New Coliseum Partners plan to build a new stadium within the L.A. Coliseum.
The NFL awarded the Cleveland franchise to a group headed by Al Lerner, the chairman of MBNA Corp., and Carmen Policy, the former president of the San Francisco 49ers, for $530 million on Sept. 8.
Meanwhile, neither New Orleans nor San Diego could get the necessary three-quarters vote for the 2002 Super Bowl from the league's 30 owners on the first ballot. On the second ballot, a simple majority was needed and New Orleans won in what NFL officials called a "close vote."
"New Orleans has been an outstanding Super Bowl city," NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue said at the conclusion of league meetings. "Their presentation was good and the owners were happy to be heading back to New Orleans."
New Orleans, which last played host to a Super Bowl in 1997, has staged five Super Bowls in the Superdome and three at Tulane Stadium.
Tagliabue said San Diego, which held the 1988 and 1998 games, is the leading candidate for the 2004 title game. San Francisco, which was supposed to be the site for the upcoming Super Bowl, has the rights to the 2003 game to be played in its new stadium.
This season's Super Bowl will be in Miami in 1999. Atlanta will play be the host in 2000 and Tampa in 2001.
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