- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 6, 2002

Remember the Texans. Houston's brand new, red, white and blue NFL franchise might be the final statement of major professional sports' latest expansion era. Barring another incursion into Charlotte by the NBA, the list of cities awaiting new franchises seems exhausted.
That whooshing sound you hear isn't a pass by rookie Texans quarterback David Carr missing a receiver, but a sigh of relief. To many, the end of expansion is terrific news. Expansion has been blamed for a multitude of sins baseball's offensive explosion, hockey's lack of scoring, one team's domination of pro basketball and no one team's domination of the NFL.
Critics say expansion has watered-down the talent "diluted" is the operative word here stripped teams of quality depth, saddled us with rag-armed pitchers and quarterbacks and ragged-skilled point guards.
To a lot of skeptics, expansion has changed the playing field as much as AstroTurf, and is just as irritating.

Evolving and growing
Like athletes behaving badly, Dobermans guarding the owners' vaults and pretty much everything else in sports, expansion is not new. Once upon a time, Redskins fans didn't hate the Dallas Cowboys because before 1960 in the NFL, there were no Dallas Cowboys. Our own Washington Wizards began life in 1961 as the Chicago Packers, an NBA expansion team renamed the Zephyrs before moving to Baltimore, then Landover, then downtown.
When it came to expansion, hockey didn't fool around. The NHL in 1967 added six American franchises and doubled in size. A few years later, the league expanded again and added, among others, the Capitals. And D.C. was intimately involved in baseball's first expansion when the Senators left for Minneapolis-St. Paul in 1961, becoming the Twins, and a new Senators franchise was created, along with the Los Angeles (now Anaheim) Angels.
The expansion pace continued, driven by what else? money. Leagues grew, markets opened up, the money rolled in and few complained. Broadcasting rights and licensing fees skyrocketed and the advent of the luxury box in Houston's Astrodome created an entirely new economic system. Sports became a multi-billion dollar industry. You could make a case that without expansion, there would be no ESPN, a thought too scary to consider for some.
There once was a time when we hadn't heard about "revenue streams." Among the deepest and widest of those revenue streams were expansion fees. Besides adding franchises that became instantly valuable themselves, leagues took in what amounted to exorbitant membership dues and divided them among the existing teams. Texans owner Bob McNair ponied up $700million to join the NFL. In 1999, the Cleveland Browns paid about $530million.
In 1961, the Senators and Angels each paid about $2million to join up. In the '90s, the Colorado Rockies, Florida Marlins, Arizona Diamondbacks and Tampa Bay Devil Rays combined to pay $450million in expansion fees to the other major league teams. In the last NBA expansion, Vancouver (now Memphis) and Toronto paid $125million apiece and NHL expansion fees were last priced at $80million.

Watering down the talent pool
Recent expansion the last 15 years or so created a backlash. As leagues swelled, fans and other observers questioned whether new markets, new money and exposing sports to a wider audience was worth compromising the product on the field, ice or floor. If, in fact, the product was being compromised in the first place.
"I think from a league standpoint it's been a good thing because it's made us a very national league," Indiana Pacers general manager Donnie Walsh said. "But in a sense of talent being spread thinner, there's no doubt about that."
Walsh's club joined the NBA in 1976, but not as an expansion franchise. The Pacers were one of the powers of the American Basketball Association, a league that proved, via stars such as Julius Erving, Maurice Lucas and Artis Gilmore, that there was, in fact, enough talent to go around. However, the NBA's addition of six teams since 1988, bringing the total to 29, has called that into question and not just because two of those six teams have relocated and others have perpetually foundered.
There are plenty of good, if not great players, but the talent is spread thin. The Los Angeles Lakers, despite winning three straight championships and establishing themselves as the latest dynasty, will forever have to defend their place among the elite teams in league history.
NBA officials defend expansion, citing the increased emphasis on international players as a new and exciting talent pool. But the added available jobs has caused, in part, more underdeveloped high school players and college underclassmen to enter the league. Not only are they not ready, but many of them are unknown. How many people watched Kwame Brown, whom the Wizards made the first high school player to be selected with the No.1 pick in the draft, light up the scoreboard in high school, other than the good folks of the greater Brunswick, Ga., metropolitan area?
"The biggest effect on the average fan is that a lot of players are coming into the league without any kind of following," Walsh said, citing Orlando's Tracy McGrady as a hugely talented player who has not quite entered the national consciousness.
"Had he gone to college and had a big following, there would have been a lot of excitement when he came out," Walsh said. "The players coming in aren't coming with any aplomb, at all."
But never mind aplomb. How about depth? Or the lack of it? "It isn't the quality you start out wanting to have," Walsh said.
Still, Walsh has but 15 jobs to fill. As general manager of the New York Giants, Ernie Accorsi has 53 jobs available. Trying to find the best available talent under the constraints of a salary cap, free agency and the frightening number of injuries inherent to a league that added teams in Charlotte, Jacksonville, Cleveland and Houston since 1995. The previous expansion was Tampa Bay and Seattle in 1976.
"It stands to reason," Accorsi said, "that if you're gonna have more jobs, there are just gonna be more players playing. I know we have guys who wouldn't have made this team 10 years ago. But how much will it affect the game?" And who will really care? According to NFL types, the answers are a) not much and b) very few.
"The NFL continues to be an elite group of players," league spokesman Greg Aiello said. "There's certainly no shortage of athletic ability." But there seems to be a shortage of top-notch quarterbacks.
Saturday's impressive showing against the San Francisco 49ers scrubs notwithstanding, this might have occurred to Redskins coach Steve Spurrier.
"I don't think you have the quality of back-up quarterback you once had," Accorsi said. "But that's always been the toughest position to find people." But Accorsi, who has to work harder than ever to plug the holes on his team, adopts the league's pro-expansion position. "I think there are as many great players as there have ever been," he said. "I don't think there are any less great plays being made, and probably more."

Keeping it competitive
Parity, practically invented by former commissioner Pete Rozelle, is the byword of the NFL. It reigns supreme. That parity, fueled by an increased number of teams and thinning talent, ended dynasties as we know them, made the quarterback an even more precious commodity and gave everyone a chance to win a Super Bowl (read 2001 New England Patriots).
"We loved the great teams," said Accorsi, who began with one of them, the Baltimore Colts, more than 30 years ago. "But for those of us in the business and those who root for our teams, it's great to know you have a chance every year."
The ills of expansion have become part of sport's conventional wisdom, mainly because there seems to be evidence. Look at baseball. Is it any coincidence that hitting statistics rose dramatically, that the home run records of Babe Ruth and Roger Maris, were broken during expansion years? Smaller ballparks, juiced baseballs, bigger, stronger players (some of them juiced themselves) and expansion are most often cited as the reasons for the inflated hitting statistics. When Mark McGwire broke Maris' record in '98, former slugger Reggie Jackson was part of a Greek chorus repeating the same thought. "No doubt, pitching is not as strong because there are more teams," he said. It's hard to argue. But some still do.
"You can only be watered down if you allow yourself to be watered down," said Buck Showalter, the former manager of the New York Yankees and Arizona Diamondbacks. "The math makes sense. But if you talk about all the pitchers that shouldn't be in the big leagues, look at all the [hitters] that shouldn't be in the big leagues. There are a lot more outs in the lineup. And, I've never heard a fan in the stands complain about a 10-9 game that took 3 hours. Most of the people who complain about that are umpires and the media."
Besides, Showalter said, scouting has made big inroads in Latin America and the Pacific Rim, uncovering more talent. Generally, the quality of today's player is higher than ever, he said. Hitters, especially. "I think the art of hitting is being taught better today than at any stage of the game," Showalter said.
"But why shouldn't players be better? Everything should be better. Cars are better, computers are better. The human body is better. So why shouldn't baseball be better."
As for all the crummy teams out there, Showalter said, don't blame expansion, or the even the disparity in revenues. "There's always a place for an organization that can evaluate talent and spend their money wisely," he said.
Diamondbacks owner Jerry Colangelo calls himself "an expansion kind of guy," and no wonder. His other team, the Phoenix Suns, joined the NBA in 1968. Despite never winning a title, the Suns have posted the fourth-best record in league history while remaining highly profitable.
Then last year, the Diamondbacks, which joined the National League in 1998, won a World Series faster than any expansion team in history.
"I guess the critics would say that expansion has had a negative impact on baseball and they long for the days when there were eight teams in each league," Colangelo said. "But that's yesterday's story line The more teams you have, the more opportunities you have to develop talent. And that's what baseball is all about, the development of talent."
In 1991, 21 teams comprised the NHL. Today there are 30. No league has grown as fast, nor put its "footprint" (as marketers like to say) in as many previously barren markets. Through relocation and expansion, the NHL materialized in such non-traditional hockey locales as Miami; Phoenix; Tampa, Fla.; Anaheim, Calif.; San Jose, Calif.; Nashville, Tenn.; and Raleigh, N.C.
And yet, many observers say expansion has damaged the game. They argue that despite the profound impact of European players, there are still too many teams. Goal-scoring and general offensive skills, they say, are the major casualties.
Not so, says Caps general manager George McPhee.
"I think the league is as good as it's ever been," he said. "Hockey has a larger pool of players to work from than the other sports, I think. And I think the speed of our game is quicker than its ever been.
"The other thing I've seen is, players aren't being pushed out the door at 30 or 32. They know how to play and play a lot longer."
McPhee said, more youngsters are playing hockey than ever before, citing a three-year increase of 3,000 in youth hockey participation in the D.C. metro area, and additional high school involvement. "We're gonna have more kids to choose from in a short period of time," he said.
McPhee did acknowledge that offensive numbers are down, but not because of expansion. "Goal-scoring is down because goalies are better than they ever were," he said. "They've changed their style and they're bigger men. And everything is so quick out there, you don't have as much time to set up and shoot like you used to."
Expansion has other defenders. Steve Hirdt, executive vice-president of the Elias Sports Bureau, the official statistician of Major League Baseball, said how talent is distributed in each sport "has more to do with the quality of play than the number of teams." He added, "The population increase of the United States and the addition of players abroad legitimizes expansion in almost every setting."
Rick Horrow, a sports marketing consultant and visiting expert in sports law at Harvard, has studied franchises and leagues for years. He argues that expansion has produced a "substantial economic impact" on communities that "had never been exposed to major league sports before can now can call a major league franchise their own." He said he doesn't really participate in the "aesthetic argument" of trying to determine the effect of expansion on what happens on the field or the ice or the arena floor.
"It's impossible," he said. "Because it's so subjective."

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