Deal close to bringing Browns here? Sources say outline for agreement believed in place; Would move by next year; Cleveland officials call report 'rumor'

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Cleveland officials scrambled yesterday to ensure that voters would approve a $170 million renovation of the Browns' stadium despite indications that the team was near an agreement to move to Baltimore.

Neither the Maryland Stadium Authority nor Browns officials would comment on their talks, but the Browns are believed to have signed last week the outline of an agreement that calls for the team to move here in time for next season, according to sources familiar with the talks.

"We're obviously trying to put this rumor to rest," said Andy Juniewicz, a spokesman for the pro-stadium Go Cleveland Committee.

Cleveland residents will vote Tuesday on a referendum that would help fund a $170 million rehabilitation of Cleveland Stadium, the home of the Browns. News of the possible move of the team has not helped the campaign, said Juniewicz, although some Cleveland political leaders speculated that the reports could be an attempt to drum up votes for the measure.

Sources familiar with the talks say Maryland Stadium Authority chairman John Moag is preparing for a news conference on Monday.

"I think the negotiations are serious," said state Sen. John Pica, chairman of the city's senate delegation.

Officials throughout Maryland were reluctant to talk about the chances of a Browns relocation, with some saying they did not want to disrupt the progress of the talks and others acknowledging an extraordinary secrecy that has kept them in the dark.

Gov. Parris Glendening, who yesterday hosted a hastily arranged lunch at the Governor's Mansion in Annapolis with Moag and several top aides, said he would not talk about any prospects. Asked about the lunch meeting, Glendening smiled and said they discussed a college basketball game.

"We can't negotiate any type of deal or arrangement by way of media, and I will not make any specific comments until we are able to stand up with a signed contract," Glendening said.

Asked about a Monday announcement, he said, "Any announcements, or any specifics, will be made when I can stand before the people of Maryland with a signed contract."

Browns part-owner and former Baltimore expansion-team bidder Alfred Lerner may assume a greater role in the team, perhaps buying out majority owner Art Modell at some point down the road, according to the sources. Lerner said last week that "anything is possible" regarding his ownership of the team but he was abiding by a moratorium on comments demanded by Modell.

Cleveland businessman Robert Gries, who owns 43 percent of the team but has been involved in legal disputes with Modell, did not respond to requests for comment.

Moag said yesterday that any franchise moving to Baltimore would have to accept some local investors but that fans would be asked to buy "personal seat licenses," one-time fees demanded of season ticket holders in a number of cities that have acquired NFL teams.

Modell, one of the last of the "old guard" of early NFL owners, told reporters yesterday at the team's Ohio training complex that the Browns were not for sale. But he declined to comment about a possible move of the team he bought for $4 million in 1961.

"Rumors about the Browns being interested in other cities have circulated for months but Art Modell has never confirmed or denied them," Juniewicz said.

The team, which helped draft the stadium rehabilitation plans, has not said it would stay if the measure passes or that it would leave if it fails. But referendum backers are stressing that the team could leave.

Advance polls suggest the referendum, which would prolong for another 10 years a tobacco and alcohol tax beyond a scheduled 2005 expiration, "has a good chance," said Juniewicz.

The Cleveland plan calls for about half the $170 million to be raised from existing parking and ticket taxes, and about $25 million each from the "sin tax" extension, state contributions, and from from stadium revenues.

Baltimore's offer, by contrast, calls for a $200 million, football-only, open-air stadium built with lottery-backed bonds issued by the state. The Baltimore Colts training center at Owings Mills also would be renovated, giving the team practice fields of both artificial and natural grass, both indoors and out.

A team would pay a few million dollars a year in revenue sharing and could become one of the most valuable franchises in sports, generating $30 million a year in pre-tax profits and commanding in excess of $200 million if sold, according to an estimate by The Sun.

But Moag said personal seat licenses probably would be part of any deal of a team coming to town. They are being used in Jacksonville, Charlotte and St. Louis, all cities that have recently acquired NFL franchises.

The fees are required before season ticket holders can buy their tickets and typically range from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand, depending upon the quality of the seat.

"PSL's are going to be part of any deal in the country. Nobody likes them but the reality is that they are part of these deals these days," Moag said. The money is often necessary to offset relocation fees and other expenses of a move.

Among the other teams that are believed to have shown interest in Baltimore recently are the Tampa Bay Bucaneers, Arizona Cardinals and Seattle Seahawks. Robert Kraft, owner of the New England Patriots, was also in town recently, according to one source. Kraft did not respond to a request for comment.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, who has appeared increasingly optimistic about the NFL in recent days, acknowledged that inquiries from interested franchises have increased as the governor's end-of-the-year deadline approaches.

"I don't want to put our community on the emotional roller coaster again about the NFL. I think the matter is going to come to a resolution one way or the other before the end of the calendar year," Schmoke said.

Glendening has said he will support legislation in the next General Assembly session to revoke the stadium funding, made up primarily of lottery-backed bonds that can't be issued until a team agrees to move here.

Glendening has said he needs to know by the end of this year to prepare his budget for the three-month session, which begins in mid-January.

Several NFL team owners contacted yesterday said they were surprised at how little the normally talkative Modell was telling them about the possibility of a move. Most, however, thought it improbable that he would give up control of the team right away, even to his longtime partner and friend Lerner.

Selling the team now would not be good estate planning for the 70-year-old Modell, said William A. Fields, chairman of the Ohio Bar Associations' committee on estate and trust law. He said the proceeds of a sale would be subject to immediate capital gains taxes and secondary estate taxes upon his death.

If he still owns the team upon his death his heirs would pay estate taxes but not capital gains, Fields said.

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