The NFL's expansion committee will recommend to the full group of team owners that the league expand to Houston when the committee reconvenes here Wednesday morning, bypassing the lucrative Los Angeles market, according to league sources.
The committee met for nearly five hours here tonight but did not take a formal vote or even a straw poll. But sources indicated that a consensus clearly had formed on the committee to award the NFL's 32nd franchise to a group headed by Houston energy mogul Robert McNair.
"I feel real good about our chances," McNair said tonight. "We have a very sound proposal. There are no holes in it. We're ready to go. Houston is ready. These are good, sound business people. I expect this proposal will be well-received."
The committee will meet again at 8 a.m. on Wednesday to vote on a recommendation that will be carried to the full ownership meeting starting at 9 a.m. Owners do not have to follow the committee's recommendation, but they almost always do. Houston must get a minimum of 24 votes to be approved.
McNair met with the committee for about two hours tonight to go over the final details of his proposal and the structure of his organization. League sources also confirmed that McNair's final proposal contains an offer to pay a $700 million expansion fee to ensure the return of pro football to a city that lost the Oilers to Tennessee after the 1996 season.
A source in McNair's group also confirmed tonight that McNair has had several conversations with former Washington Redskins general manager Charley Casserly, who was fired by new Redskins owner Daniel M. Snyder in August.
McNair has not offered Casserly a position in his new organization, but the source said he definitely will be a candidate for a general manager or director of football operations job, depending on how McNair structures his front office.
Casserly is still listed as a consultant to Snyder, who has agreed to pay off the rest of his contract. But Casserly is free to accept a position with any other team.
McNair, 62, is a native North Carolinian and long-time Redskins fan who amassed a vast fortune in the energy business. He is prepared to start construction on a $310 million stadium with a retractable roof, with $195 million in public financing, in March. McNair has said he would like a team to start playing in the 2002 season, when the stadium would be ready; the league may hold off until 2003.
Los Angeles has been without football since the Rams moved to St. Louis after the 1994 season. Two groups have been vying for a team, one headed by Hollywood agent Michael Ovitz, the other by financier Eli Broad and developer Ed Roski.
Ovitz appeared before the expansion committee for about 30 minutes tonight, and a league spokesman said he spoke mainly about the importance of returning the NFL to the nation's No. 2 TV market. He did not speak about his own proposal to locate a team at Hollywood Park.
Roski and Ovitz each met separately with Commissioner Paul Tagliabue and committee co-chairmen Robert Kraft and Jerry Richardson this afternoon. Roski had not been invited to speak to the committee, but flew in today with an 11th hour proposal that included an offer of a $500 million expansion fee and pledges from local politicians of $100 million in public financing for a renovated Los Angeles Coliseum.
Expansion committee members have been troubled by Los Angeles's inability to settle on a viable site, and several owners also like the idea of keeping the market open for other teams to relocate if favorable stadium deals cannot be consummated in their current cities. They also have serious reservations about the Coliseum site.
McNair's $700 million expansion fee would surpass the $535 million paid by Cleveland banking magnate Al Lerner for the expansion Browns last September. McNair would neither confirm nor deny that figure tonight, but sources said the committee was clearly impressed with his financial commitment.
"I hope they'll make a decision tomorrow," McNair said. "Based on the information I've seen, [prudence] and good judgment would indicate it should be for Houston."