Los Angeles and Houston, deserted by three teams during the franchise free agency boom of the 1990s, begin trying on Tuesday to get back in the NFL.
But only one city will be successful, probably leaving the loser trolling for an existing franchise unhappy with its stadium arrangements.
The scene will be the NFL's fall owners' meeting, a short affair at which the agenda consists primarily of pleas by two groups from Los Angeles and one from Houston for franchises that would begin play in 2001 or 2002.
The NFL goes to 31 teams next year when the Cleveland Browns rejoin the league, replacing the franchise that Art Modell moved to Baltimore after the 1995 season.
But that will leave an odd number of clubs, meaning some team will have to get a bye every week of the season, including the first week and the last.
That's why the owners want to add another team as quickly as possible - but only one.
"You've got two cities out there, and there's only going to be one more expansion team for a long time," Denver owner Pat Bowlen said. "There are only going to be 32 teams in the league."
Houston, deserted by the Oilers for Tennessee after the 1996 season, is thought to be ahead of two Los Angeles groups. That's because it has one group, headed by Bob McNair, with financing already in place and Steve Patterson, a former general manager of the NBA's Rockets as its general manager.
And while commissioner Paul Tagliabue has said all along he'd like Los Angeles back, he also has close ties to McNair.
Los Angeles lost two teams after the 1995 season -- the Rams to St. Louis and the Raiders back to Oakland.
One Los Angeles group is led by Michael Ovitz, once considered Hollywood's most powerful dealmaker. The other is led by Ed Roski, co-owner of the NHL's Kings, who wants to play in a refurbished Los Angeles Coliseum.
Ovitz' group has the higher profile, featuring a Los Angeles Lakers connection of Jerry West, Shaqulle O'Neal and Magic Johnson. They want to build a stadium away from downtown Los Angeles.
The wild card in all this -- as he often is -- is Al Davis, the owner of the Raiders, who moved his team from Oakland to Los Angeles in 1982 and back to the Bay area in 1996. He also has made overtures about moving back and claims he still has the franchise rights in the Los Angeles area.
Also expected on the agenda is a request from the new Cleveland group, headed by Al Lerner, to begin hiring personnel from other teams. The obvious target is San Francisco, where Browns president Carmen Policy, former president of the 49ers, would like to hire general manager Dwight Clark to run his operation.
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