Despite declining television ratings, constant pressure from the U.S. Football League and predictions of doom from the National Football League's management council, NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle said today that most -- if not all -- of the teams in the league are making money.
"We're in a healthy financial status right now, as a league," Rozelle told a news conference during the league's annual winter meetings, being held this week at the Arizona Biltmore Hotel.
"Virtually all of (the teams) made money or will take steps to see that they make money in the next few years. Certainly, way over a majority (are making money).
"Of all professional sports, I think it's clear the NFL is in the best financial state."
Recently, the management council projected that 22 or 23 of the 28 teams in the league would lose money during the 1986 season, mainly because of escalating salaries due to competition with the USFL.
In 1984, salaries were up 25 percent over 1983. Jack Donlan, executive director of the management council, based his predictions on salary escalations of another 25 to 30 percent and nonplayer costs rising 10 percent, Rozelle said. But, so far this year, there has been a cease-fire in the bidding war. The USFL has signed very few college seniors, compared with its first two years.
"It's Flutie, really," Rozelle said, refering to Heisman Trophy winner Doug Flutie of Boston College, who signed a $7 million contract to play for the New Jersey Generals. "He's probably the only one they have signed who would have gone in the first five or six rounds of our draft.
"I would think there's a pretty good possibility, based upon what has happened so far, that there won't be the heavy bidding for players as in the past. I'm not saying they won't come back and bid aggressively after our draft, but I thought it was a sign, anyway."
It is being interpreted as a sign that the NFL is becoming less apprehensive about the USFL, a belief furthered today by Rozelle's statement that team owners may vote to limit rosters to 45 players. For the past three seasons, a majority of owners has voted for a 49-man roster, favored by most coaches and by those who wanted to keep 112 more players out of the clutches of the USFL.
But, if a vote is taken on the roster issue here this week (the vote might be delayed until May), Rozelle said he "would question whether there are 21 votes" (the necessary three-fourths majority) for passage of the larger roster. If fewer than 21 teams vote for the 49-man roster, "it would automatically stay at 45," he said.
Rozelle said he will not take sides on the issue, but the Cincinnati Bengals are leading a move to go back to the 45-man roster for the financial relief it would give to owners, whether or not they need it.
Rozelle initially said "none" of the 28 NFL owners is in trouble now, then modified his statement. He was not including the Philadelphia and New Orleans situations, in which sales to new owners are taking place.
Reports out of Denver and San Francisco indicated that the Broncos and 49ers lost money last year, but Rozelle was not so sure.
"I'd have to talk to them to find out what was involved in their costs," he said.
Meanwhile, 49ers owner Edward DeBartolo Jr. said he is considering moving his team from Candlestick Park.
The team's lease doesn't expire until 2000, but, he said, "The place has deteriorated so bad that in my humble opinion, they are in default of the lease." He said it would cost $48 million to complete the necessary repairs and improvements at Candlestick. He said the 49ers are looking at sites in the South Bay, near San Jose, and also at Oakland, which might build a new football stadium next door to the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum.
"My main concern is to the 49ers and our fans," DeBartolo said. "If (a move to Oakland) helps the franchise, maybe." DeBartolo plans to meet with San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein here Wednesday to discuss Candlestick Park.
Three NFL teams were sold last year -- the Dallas Cowboys, San Diego Chargers, and Broncos -- but Rozelle denied that is a sign of instability within the league.
"We haven't had a case of someone unilaterally selling for a higher price," he said. "They all had good reasons for (selling). Other than the financial pressure some were under or health situations (of the owners), they love (the NFL) and all 28 want to stay in it."
In Rozelle's report on the state of the league to the owners, coaches and other team officials before his news conference, he mentioned one "negative:" television ratings.
NBC's ratings dropped 4 percent; ABC's, 6 percent; and CBS's, 14 percent, between 1983 and 1984.
"TV as a whole is down and so we went down with them," Rozelle said.