With a week remaining before a vote of NFL owners on the Browns' move, negotiations to satisfy Cleveland, Baltimore and an anxious league are going on behind the scenes, with participants reporting some progress but no breakthroughs.
"The talks have been constructive. We've covered many issues, but there are some very difficult hurdles to overcome," said Fred Nance, the lead attorney and negotiator for Cleveland.
"We have been spending more and more time on the trial preparations, because that is where I think this will end up."
The city and NFL agreed last month to seek a "mutually satisfactory" resolution of the crisis brought on by the Browns' proposed relocation to Baltimore. Both sides have spoken of a "global" settlement of the city's lawsuit against the Browns, Maryland's antitrust case against the league and the desire of both cities to have teams.
"We've done our homework and we think our case is just," Browns spokesman David Hopcraft said of the team's relocation application. He declined, however, to predict an outcome on the vote of NFL owners, scheduled for next Friday in Chicago.
A settlement that accommodates Cleveland could help sway votes for the Browns.
Neither the city nor the league will discuss specifics of the settlement talks, but sources familiar with them say Cleveland continues to press for the Browns to stay but has agreed to explore other options, such as another franchise relocating to town and adopting the Browns' name or a binding resolution by the league promising Cleveland a team.
All of those options present their own problems, and there is disagreement within the league about which one is better. The league is reluctant to add teams, which reduces the shared income earned from network television, but a new stadium in Baltimore and a new or renovated facility in Cleveland will not be ready for several years, making an expansion to either city more attractive to some owners.
Cleveland officials privately have acknowledged the difficulty of having a team play at Cleveland Stadium while it is being repaired or replaced on the same site, complicating the city's efforts to attract a new team. Many in the NFL believe a new stadium there is needed, but a more extensive renovation than was offered the Browns also is under consideration.
The city asked the Indians permission to have a football team play at Jacobs Field temporarily, but the baseball team refused. The next most likely site is Ohio State's stadium in Columbus, a two-hour drive from Cleveland.
If the Seattle Seahawks move to the Los Angeles area, as was reported yesterday, that would remove one of the prime relocation candidates, but others remain: the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Arizona Cardinals and Cincinnati Bengals are in various stages of talks aimed at improving their stadiums.
Buccaneers officials were in Baltimore this week speaking with the Browns, and the Bucs are exploring a range of options from Cleveland to Orlando, Fla., and other cities, according to sources familiar with their talks.
The team has considered an "asset swap," whereby it would move to Cleveland and adopt the Browns' name. Talks between the Buccaneers and Tampa have grown increasingly acrimonious in recent weeks, and even some city leaders there consider a move likely, despite a relocation penalty of $5 million to $35 million the team would have to pay the estate of the previous owner.
The Bengals are awaiting the outcome of a March 19 referendum on a tax increase to pay for new stadiums for the Reds and Bengals. Polls are showing mixed results.
Cleveland has assembled $175 million in financing for stadium work, which some team owners are skeptical will be enough. The league could help the funding by agreeing to forgo some premium-seat revenue that generally goes to visiting teams or through the use of relocation fees paid by the Browns and other teams that move.
The Browns also have offered to pay all rent and debts the team owes under its leases, money that could be used for stadium work. The team's agreement with Maryland allows it to raise money through permanent seat licenses to make these payments -- meaning Baltimore fans would be helping Cleveland.
Cleveland has told the league it does not want a settlement that would leave it in worse position than if it were to proceed with its lawsuit and win a court order forcing the Browns to play there through 1998, according to sources. The judge in the case has issued a temporary order to that effect and will convene a trial Feb. 12 to decide whether to make it final.