Sometime late this month, the 13 remaining NFL owners ( Cleveland, Baltimore and Pittsburgh are in the AFL next year) will probably meet in New York to try to realign the league into three divisions—two containing four teams and one five. The owners have wrangled through three meetings so far without arriving at an alignment agreeable to all of the clubs, and it's even money that it will take them somewhat longer to do so than it took the 13 colonies to come up with the Constitution.
At the moment Commissioner Pete Rozelle is seeing the owners one at a time, using his considerable powers of diplomacy. "I go to see some of them and some of them come to see me," he said last week. "When we have arrived at the best possible compromise, we'll have the meeting."
This piecemeal approach was prompted by the difficulty of discussing realignment in general session. "When all the owners are in one room, it leads to polarization and makes agreement almost impossible," says Tex Schramm, the president of the Dallas Cowboys. "We probably newer would have reached agreement on the merger if the negotiations hadn't been put on a personal level."
Three factors determine the desirability of a team as a member of a division: weather, stadium capacity and present and potential playing capability. In these regards the New Orleans Saints are the best club in the NFL: Tulane Stadium seats 80,997; New Orleans is balmy, if a bit wet at times; and the Saints are an expansion team that, most likely, is two or three years away from being a serious contender.
At the other end of the scale are the Minnesota Vikings. The Vikes play in Metropolitan Stadium, which seats only 47,693 frostbitten customers; but, more important, the Vikes are very, very good and very young. Any team in the same division with the Vikings for the next few years can expect to suffer financially, physically and in the standings.
At present the Vikings are in the Central Division with Green Bay, Detroit and Chicago, a division known, understandably, as the Snow Belt. The other three members of the division wouldn't mind sticking together if they could trade Minnesota for a team like Dallas or Atlanta. New Orleans would be acceptable, too, except that Owner John Mecom Jr. would jump to the Canadian League before he would agree.
"I think we are flexible," Schramm says, but then adds: "We're willing to go West, East or South. We train in California and we have established preseason rivalries with the Rams and the 49ers. We've played in the East ever since 1961 and we've established rivalries with the Eastern clubs. We've begun a real rivalry with New Orleans in the South and we're a Southern team anyway."
Schramm, like almost every other NFL owner or president, is hard put to discover any reason why he should move North. "It doesn't make sense," he says. "It would be difficult to establish long-range rivalries. We've spent years developing those rivalries in the East and we would have to start all over. And our location makes us a warm-weather team. Our players live and practice in warm weather. The players in Green Bay, Detroit, Chicago and Minnesota live and practice in cold weather. It's unfair to ask us to play under completely alien conditions at least three times a year."
The Cowboys would seem to be a plum for any division, but they aren't eagerly sought. The Cotton Bowl (72,000) is certainly big enough and, although Dallas isn't as warm as Los Angeles or New Orleans, it isn't frigid, either. But the Cowboys, like the Vikings, may be in the early years of a dynasty and no one wants to be locked into a division with a perennial champion.
Most clubs will compromise on stadium size or December weather; the sticking point in the negotiations has been the quality of the competition. "The weather isn't that big a factor," Rozelle points out. "To take an extreme example, say Atlanta was put into the Central Division with the four clubs already there. It wouldn't do much to the clubs now in the division. Each of them would play in Atlanta once, and all four of them couldn't play there in December. So it would probably mean a warm-weather date in December for one or two of the clubs. The same holds true, of course, for New Orleans or Dallas."