ATLANTA -- Houston and Los Angeles, which lost NFL franchises this decade, will learn in March which will get one back.
Commissioner Paul Tagliabue said Tuesday there seems to be agreement among the owners on adding a 32nd franchise, setting up a vote on where that team will play.
After meeting with the league's expansion committee, Tagliabue said the owners seem committed to approving a fourth expansion this decade.
Jacksonville and Carolina joined the league in 1995, while the new Cleveland Browns begin play this fall. The 31 owners will meet next month in Phoenix, when a decision is expected on the next franchise that could begin play in 2002.
"I think people are getting to the point where they understand that, as we go into the 21st century, we've certainly got to have a 32-team league," Tagliabue said after the four-hour meeting at an Atlanta airport hotel.
He said both the L.A. and Houston markets have fan interest, population, and television appeal.
The main difference is there is only one group, headed by Robert McNair, vying for the franchise in Houston, and it has a plan for a new retractable-roof stadium.
Two rival groups in Los Angeles are bidding for the expansion franchise, each with its own stadium plan.
Hollywood mogul Michael Ovitz has lined up an all-star roster of investors, including actors Tom Cruise and Kevin Costner, to build a combined stadium and shopping mall in Carson, 21 miles south of downtown. Developer Ed Roski Jr. and billionaire Eli Broad are proposing to renovate the Los Angeles Coliseum.
Los Angeles has been without a franchise since the Raiders returned to Oakland and the Rams moved to St. Louis after the 1995 season. The Houston Oilers left for Tennessee in 1997.
Tagliabue said the league may assist in the funding of the Los Angeles stadium, but the money would go toward one of the plans already proposed.
He would not say if the league is committed to picking one of the two ownership groups, indicating there is some trepidation among the owners about the warring bids.
"We've got two different ownership groups and two different stadium plans," he said. "That's something we've got to work through."
The expansion decision likely will spawn a whole new set of issues, with realignment at the head of the list. Tagliabue said the expansion committee discussed various scenarios Tuesday, using both Los Angeles and Houston.
Realignment is a hot-button issue in a league where Arizona and Dallas are part of the NFC East, Atlanta and Carolina are members of the NFC West, and the three teams in Florida are spread over three separate divisions in both conferences.
On another matter, the league's finance committee decided it needs more information about an $800-million bid by Howard Milstein to purchase the Washington Redskins.
The league wants to ensure that Milstein is not violating the rule against borrowing more than $100 million using the team as collateral to complete the deal.
"We're moving as promptly as we can. It's important to Washington and important to the league," Tagliabue said. "But it's not as important that we complete this deal today or tomorrow as it is to make the right decision for the next quarter-century."
NFL spokesman Joe Browne said Tagliabue also hopes to have a decision by the March meeting on whether Edward DeBartolo Jr., owner of the San Francisco 49ers, can resume active control of the team.
DeBartolo ceded day-to-day control to his sister, Denise DeBartolo York, when he was targeted in a Louisiana gambling fraud probe. He pleaded guilty in October to failing to report a felony crime.
Browne said the NFL is still committed to having the 2003 Super Bowl in San Francisco -- if a new stadium is built to replace 3Com Park. That issue will be discussed next month, as well, with the owners having the option of taking away the title game.