CHICAGO -- The National Football League last night reached a tentative accord with the city of Cleveland that will bring a renamed Browns franchise to Baltimore this year and a replacement team to Cleveland by 1999.
The agreement, if approved today by NFL owners, will fill a void left in Baltimore by the departure of the Colts 12 years ago and preserve for the league a market that has been as supportive as any in the country.
With the agreement, all sides in the conflict declared victory.
"We believe the agreement achieves what we set out to get three months ago: our team, our name and our colors," said Cleveland Mayor Michael White.
Twenty three of the NFL's 30 franchises must vote to approve the agreement, but passage appeared likely with the endorsement of the city of Cleveland and NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue.
"I don't think it will have any trouble passing with the recommendation of the staff and the finance committee," said Robert Tisch, co-owner of the New York Giants.
The agreement also must be translated into a longer contract, which must be approved by NFL owners at meetings next month and the Cleveland City Council.
Mr. Tagliabue made no public comments last night, but issued a statement saying, "This is a historic agreement."
On Nov. 6, the Browns announced their intention to move, citing the inadequacy of Cleveland Stadium and frustration with negotiations to replace the facility, which was built in 1931. The announcement set off a firestorm of criticism nationwide of Mr. Modell and the NFL, which has seen five franchises announce their intentions to move in the past year.
"Baltimore is incredibly empathetic for what Cleveland went through. We unfortunately didn't get that a dozen years ago," said Maryland Stadium Authority Chairman John Moag, who spent the past two days here helping to hammer out the agreement.
"Football is a tough game to get back into town and I said from the beginning that there would be bumps in the road, but I don't think that tempers this," Mr. Moag said.
Mr. Modell and Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening will not make any public statements until after today's vote.
"The governor is encouraged by today's action by NFL owners in Chicago," said spokesman John W. Frece. "He is optimistic that the owners will return an NFL franchise to Baltimore where it belongs."
The deal calls for Cleveland to drop its lawsuit against the Browns, a case that was scheduled for trial Monday and likely to embarrass the team and city as details of their failed negotiations were publicly aired.
The suit sought to force the Browns to play the final three seasons of their lease at Cleveland Stadium. In addition, the Maryland Stadium Authority will drop its $36 million antitrust suit against the league once the agreement is final, Mr. Moag said.
The city of Cleveland also will build a 72,000-seat stadium at the site of the current facility. The city estimates this will cost between $220 million and $230 million, and will be paid for by league financing and a $175 million package of tax increases and borrowing already approved by Cleveland.
Cleveland also agreed not to lure a team itself, leaving its football destiny in the NFL's hands.
In return, the city will get to keep the Browns' name, colors and records for use by another team that the league promises to bring to the city, through expansion or relocation, by 1999. The agreement specifies that if an existing team is moved to Cleveland, the club cannot be breaking its lease and must meet the NFL's eight-point relocation criteria, which measure community support and financial viability.
Mr. Modell will reimburse the city for up to $2.25 million in legal and other expenses as well as $9.3 million in damages over four years. That money likely will come from the sale of permanent seat licenses at Baltimore's new stadium.
Mr. Modell also must pay the NFL a relocation fee of $29 million -- $20 million upfront and $9 million to be paid over 15 years, sources said. Mr. Modell also agreed to forego any share of an expansion fee if Cleveland is given a new team.
The most controversial element of the deal to some owners is a line of credit the league will provide Cleveland, which will be paid back with interest by the team that eventually goes there. The agreement specifies the league will loan $28 million to $48 million for the stadium, depending upon costs.
The league has been reluctant to fund stadiums.
"It is a new concept. I think it may work. It has to work," said Mr. Tisch.
San Diego Chargers owner Alex Spanos said, "I believe in revenue sharing. If that's what we have to do to help a city or help a team, I believe we have to be there when they need that help."
Less enthusiastic was Buffalo Bills owner Ralph Wilson, one of the most ardent opponents of the Browns' move: "I'm not in favor of the NFL financing stadiums around the country. It would be a very big precedent."
The deal, finally struck at 8 o'clock EST last night, capped a long day that began with NFL officials trying to persuade Mr. Modell to sell or turn over his team to Clevelanders and accept an expansion team in Baltimore in a few years.
Mr. Modell and Mr. Moag forcefully rejected that idea, sending the bargainers back to the table, and, eventually, to agreement.
"I think they hoped Maryland would give a little more, but our agreement is our agreement. The state of Maryland has stepped up to the plate," Mr. Moag said.
Talks between the city and the NFL seemed closed to settlement late Wednesday but were thrown off track when a number of issues that appeared settled came back up. The JTC league, for example, returned to an idea that it has been pressing for weeks: Mr. Modell would sell the Browns or put it into an NFL-controlled trust and accept the promise of an expansion team.
One league official defended the idea as a way of preserving stability in Cleveland while giving Baltimore a new team with which to begin fresh. Although Mr. Modell would not enjoy the revenues of a team for several years, he would also be spared any losses.
Mr. Modell's team -- to be renamed through a fan contest -- will play this season and next at Memorial Stadium while a $200 million stadium is built adjacent to Oriole Park at Camden Yards. The team will move into the new stadium in 1998.
There are efforts under way in the General Assembly to revoke funding for the stadium, but Mr. Moag said he is confident they will not succeed.
Deal's key points
* Cleveland will get a new NFL team by 1999, either by expansion or the move of an existing franchise that met the league's criteria for relocation.
* The Browns immediately will move to Baltimore and leave behind their name and colors.
* The NFL will provide $28 million to $48 million to Cleveland as a loan to help build a 72,000-seat stadium, which would be constructed on the site of Cleveland Stadium. The loan will be repaid by the owners of the new Cleveland team, which will sign a 30-year lease.
* Cleveland will stay all litigation, pending today's vote by NFL owners.
* Browns owner Art Modell will reimburse Cleveland for up to $2.25 million in legal and other expenses as well as $9.3 million in damages over four years. He also will pay the NFL a relocation fee of $29 million.