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NFL sees 2 sides to plan Financing praised, old stadium isn't


ATLANTA -- NFL team owners had a mixed reaction yesterday to a presentation by Cleveland officials, complimenting them on their "rock solid" stadium renovation financing plan, but questioning whether a new structure would be better.

"Personally I'd like to see them build a new stadium, but I'm not moving to Cleveland," said New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson, the chairman of the league's finance committee.

A 14-person delegation led by Cleveland Mayor Michael White spent three hours presenting its case for keeping the Browns to a joint meeting of the league's finance and stadium committees.

The team owners, many of them intimately familiar with stadium economics, quizzed the city officials extensively on a range of issues such as rehabbing versus new construction, the animosity Browns owner Art Modell would face if forced to stay in Cleveland, and the chronic cost overruns at the city's new basketball and baseball facilities.

The Browns have signed a contract to move to Baltimore this year, citing poor corporate support and dim prospects for a significantly improved stadium. The team has spent decades in Cleveland Stadium, a crumbling, 65-year-old structure that has fallen behind league standards for concessions, luxury seating and other money-making amenities growing more important to team owners.

White gave his version of the months of negotiations with the TTC Browns, during which the team said a renovation would suffice and promised not to leave town. The team accuses the city of dragging its feet, while the city says the team was not forthcoming about its needs or plans.

Under NFL guidelines for relocation, a team must prove financial hardship, a lack of fan and/or government support, and that the community has been given a fair opportunity to redress deficiencies.

The adequacy of the stadium plan, and the city's responsiveness, is likely to play a large role in the league's view of the Browns case because no one disputes the fan support in Cleveland, where crowds routinely top 70,000.

"We had what I believe was a meaningful discussion of the issues. . . It was constructive, it was detailed and it was factual," White told reporters afterward.

He said the city's proposed renovation and lease restructuring would catapult the team's revenues into the upper ranks of NFL franchises, an assertion disputed by some independent experts who have seen the plan.

Asked about the chances for a new stadium being constructed, White said, "We indicated that that issue, like so many, is one we have to keep open, too."

But, he said, the city, county and state could not go beyond the $175 million package of bonds and tax increases put together for the renovation. A new stadium would cost an additional $37 million to $125 million, he said.

He said the team playing at the stadium may have to contribute, along the lines of the Cavaliers and Indians, who have been forced to help cover overruns on their new facilities in Cleveland.

Cleveland would avoid overruns -- an issue the owners are worried about -- by striking a fixed-price contract with a construction company, White said.

At the suggestion of the NFL, Cleveland added two sections of club seats to the proposal, as well as a pair of adjacent lounges open only to club-seat and sky-box renters. That could bring the renovation price tag up to $189 million. White said the additional money would probably come from club-seat revenues.

As for Modell returning to Cleveland, where he has been vilified, White told the team owners he would prefer a team with the Browns' name and colors but a different owner. But he said he and other community leaders would publicly urge forgiveness of Modell if he returned.

NFL president Neil Austrian said the owners were confident the plan to raise $175 million was "rock solid." But he said the league and Cleveland have more issues to discuss.

"I don't want to speculate on an end result at this point," said Austrian, who described the meeting as "extensive, open and very honest."

He said the possibility of another team moving to Cleveland was raised by some owners, but only briefly because it sparks a new set of issues for the community losing its team.

Austrian said neither Baltimore nor Cleveland should feel "encouraged or discouraged" after yesterday's meeting.

Houston Oilers owner Bud Adams said the city did a good job with the presentation and the financing package. But he would not say if he or any other owners were persuaded to vote against the Browns' move.

"We still need to hear from Art," Adams said. Modell is scheduled to address the committees on Jan. 16, the day before all 30 owners are set to consider, and possibly vote on, the issue.

Twenty-three owners must approve the move, although many legal scholars contend the NFL would open itself up to an expensive antitrust lawsuit if it tried to block the move.

Although Cleveland officials compare their renovation plan to the extensive rebuilding Jacksonville's Gator Bowl underwent for the expansion Jaguars, that team's owner says it is not as complete.

"They are two different scenarios," Wayne Weaver said.

Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson, a former player for the Baltimore Colts who heads the league's stadium committee, was also unconvinced about a rehabilitation.

"We've got a lot more to find out about that. That's a very complicated issue. It's not a simple thing," Richardson said.

New York Giants co-owner Bob Tisch said there should be teams in both Baltimore and Cleveland. "That's the solution. But in a sensible manner," he said.

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