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Houston Wins NFL Franchise

Houston rejoined the NFL today, paying a record $700 million for an expansion franchise and beating out Los Angeles, the nation's second-largest TV market.

The vote, announced by commissioner Paul Tagliabue, was 29-0 with Arizona and St. Louis abstaining. Twenty-four votes were needed for approval.

The decision represents a blow to Los Angeles, which could not agree on several proposals for a stadium site. The city lost the Raiders to Oakland and the Rams to St. Louis after the 1994 season.

The vote awarding Houston businessman Bob McNair the team followed months of indecision in which the NFL at one point conditionally awarded a franchise to Los Angeles. A deadline for Los Angeles to come up with a suitable stadium proposal came and went, eventually putting Houston back into the picture.

"I think after a while we all got tired of it, thought it was time to make a decision," McNair said.

The $700 million fee is the highest for a sports team in the United States. With a $310 million stadium included, the Houston deal would be worth more than $1 billion a first for the NFL.

"It's a great day for Houston, we hope a great day for football," McNair said. "Our facility will be second to none."

The vote returns an NFL team to Houston, which lost the Oilers to Tennessee after the 1996 season and is the nation's No. 11 television market.

The name of the Houston team is not set, but Tagliabue said it would not be "Oilers." When Cleveland lost its franchise to Baltimore after the 1995 season, the NFL brought back a team to Cleveland, along with its traditional nickname, colors and records.

Upon hearing the news today, football enthusiasts in Houston were ecstatic.

Larry Dluhy, owner of Sports Collectibles of Houston, was a longtime Oilers fan, but said he welcomed the return of an NFL team.

"We're on cloud nine. We just can't believe it, it's so exciting," Dluhy said. "I've lived here all my life and the last two years with the Oilers gone there's been a huge vacancy. It's like an empty closet and now we've filled it back up."

At the SRO Sports Bar & Cafe near downtown Houston, the lunch crowd had not yet arrived but manager Kathryn Scharringhousen was already celebrating.

"It's awesome. I'm very happy and I know it's going to be great for our business," Ms. Scharringhousen said. "I think everyone just loves a Houston home team."

Owners also voted to adjust the league alignment to eight divisions of four teams each. Right now, there are six divisions one with six teams and the rest with five.

Houston will be placed in the AFC, where the old Oilers played. That would mean one AFC team would have to switch to the NFC. Arizona and St. Louis abstained because of questions over the proposed alignment.

McNair said a retractable-roof stadium will be completed in time for Houston to play it first season in 2002. Public funds of $195 million will go into the project.

As part of the deal, Houston will be the site of a Super Bowl "as soon as practical after completion of the stadium," Tagliabue said.

"We've made an outstanding business proposal, and these are good business people who know a good proposal," McNair said. "From what I know about the other proposals, I don't think they compare to ours. I think the main issue is that Houston's ready to go."

The league's expansion committee met with McNair on Tuesday evening and also heard Michael Ovitz make another pitch for giving Los Angeles the 32nd team.

McNair's $700 million franchise bid is some $50 million higher than the new franchise was expected to be worth. Ovitz, who most recently proposed building a stadium at Hollywood Park in Inglewood, Calif., and another group seeking a team for the Los Angeles Coliseum apparently did not make an offer anywhere close to the one Houston put on the table.

Ovitz and his backers hold an option on a parcel of land at Hollywood Park. But he obtained the option just last week, so any plan for that site would have to be in the very early stages.

Ed Roski, one of the Coliseum backers, also was in Atlanta. He would not disclose the amount of the offer made by his group, which includes billionaire Eli Broad. Roski did say that he believed any plan to build a stadium at Hollywood Park faced a number of challenges, including lacking easy access to freeways, that the Coliseum proposal did not face.

Los Angeles City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas said in Los Angeles that the Coliseum group never received a clear idea of what the NFL wanted in LA.

The league owners voted 29-2 last March to give Los Angeles a team conditional on the NFL's receiving a suitable stadium and financing proposal by Sept. 15.

The league shortly afterward narrowed the choice down to the Coliseum, eliminating a bid by Ovitz, who proposed building a stadium in suburban Carson. But the negations with the Coliseum stalled last summer after the NFL's request requested and did not receive the promise of $150 million in public funds to go toward the Coliseum project.

©1999 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed

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