Baltimore endures final NFL drama Deal almost derailed: Three days of negotiations last week assured Baltimore of an NFL team for 1996, but not before the league tried to make the city wait a few more years.; THE NFL RETURNS TO BALTIMORE

THE BALTIMORE SUN

CHICAGO -- Like everything else connected to Baltimore's 12-year drive to return to the NFL, the final three days of negotiations were full of anxious twists and turns that at times made it seem the city was destined for yet another disappointment.

Although the deal the league ratified late Friday morning had essentially taken shape weeks earlier, it appeared on the verge of collapse as late as Wednesday night -- just a few hours after the negotiators had broken up for dinner thinking an agreement was at hand.

The city of Cleveland had tentatively agreed to letting the Browns move to Baltimore in exchange for a promise of a team that would bear the name and colors of the franchise that had been nurtured by Clevelanders since its founding in 1946. In return, the NFL would provide financial assistance for building a stadium -- a concession never before offered to a city.

And Baltimore finally would get its team, filling a painful void left by the Mayflower vans pulling out of town with the Colts' equipment late one slushy night 12 years ago next month.

At about 9 p.m. Wednesday, the NFL's top brass -- including Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, President Neil Austrian and Senior Vice President Rodger Goodell -- made a report to a joint meeting of the league's finance and stadium committees.

The officials, who had spent months mired in four-way negotiations among Cleveland, Baltimore, the Browns and the other NFL owners, explained the deal that was coming together but also laid out the option of keeping the Browns in Cleveland and promising owner Art Modell and Baltimore an expansion team after it built a stadium.

Owners were divided

The committees were made up of 12 of the league's most influential owners, and they were not shy about expressing their opinions, according to several participants. Some, led by

Jacksonville Jaguars owner Wayne Weaver -- who beat Baltimore a little more than two years ago for his expansion franchise -- aggressively argued for making Baltimore wait.

"There were some owners who were uncomfortable with it on principle, who wondered if it was fair to move the team," said committee member and Philadelphia Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie.

The meeting dragged on for two hours, deeply dividing the committees, according to participants. Mr. Weaver spoke against Baltimore getting the Browns, but the other expansion victor, Carolina Panthers owner and former Baltimore Colt Jerry Richardson, took the opposite position.

Mr. Weaver and Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney argued that the storied franchise should stay where it has been supported by fans for 50 seasons.

But Mr. Richardson countered that the deal could bring the league four new stadiums. Cleveland and Baltimore would begin construction immediately, improving legislative support in Annapolis for the Redskins stadium in Landover. Even Cincinnati, where voters will decide next month whether to raise taxes for a new Bengals stadium, would get the message, he argued.

Mr. Richardson and New York Giants co-owner Robert Tisch and others argued that Mr. Modell -- a pillar of the league for 35 years -- is 70 and has had heart problems. Depriving him of football, his passion and occupation, for even a couple of years would not be fair.

The owners agreed to make one last approach to Mr. Modell to see if he would accept a football hiatus, Mr. Lurie said. Maryland Stadium Authority Chairman John Moag was not in the room for the debate. He was staying at another hotel with Mr. Modell and the Browns delegation.

They had planned to come to the meetings Wednesday to be on hand in case the committees had questions. By dinner time, though, the deal seemed close enough for the league to tell them they need not come over. Relieved, they went to dinner.

But Mr. Moag knew of the festering split within the league and its front office. The weekend before, Browns officials had engaged in some blunt conversations with league officials, saying they would not accept any deal that did not result in the Browns playing in Baltimore this year.

Browns officials spent the next few days trying to beat the trust vTC idea back into a box, and thought they had made progress. Mr. Moag, too, made it clear that he would accept nothing less than Mr. Modell's team this year. He also raised the defense that would later resonate with owners: Rejecting the Browns move would doom stadiums in Cleveland, Baltimore and, in all reality, Landover, because Baltimore lawmakers were unlikely to support Redskins funding without the Browns stadium at Camden Yards.

NFL: Can't Baltimore wait?

Late Wednesday night, Mr. Moag got the first inkling that the trust idea had come back to life. Longtime NFL spokesman Joe Browne told reporters that Baltimore or Cleveland could end up with a promise and no team. He said a vote might not be taken at these meetings -- the second convened over the past month on the issue.

Frederick Nance, a litigator with the Cleveland firm of Squires, Sanders & Dempsey and his city's chief negotiator, was equally surprised when the NFL returned to the bargaining table at about midnight raising anew the trust idea. It had been the city's first preference, but its chances seemed to have faded hours earlier.

Earlier in the day, the league had increased its offer of stadium assistance, coming up with "real numbers" for the first time, Mr. Nance said. The concept of a league loan to be repaid by the team that eventually moves to Cleveland had been under discussion for weeks. The city offered to ease its demands for reparations from Modell in exchange, Mr. Nance said.

The league said keeping the Browns in Cleveland would not endanger its stadium money, but most assuredly would mean less money from Mr. Modell, Mr. Nance said. By Wednesday, Mr. Modell's official offer was still only about $2.5 million to the city to make up for the rent he would have paid over the last three seasons of his lease. The city wanted tens of millions of dollars for legal fees, consultants' reports and lost tax revenue.

The offer to keep the team in town threw the talks off, and the bargainers stayed at the table until 3 a.m. haggling over various money issues.

Moag stands firm

At midmorning Thursday, Mr. Modell and his attorney and top advisers met with Mr. Moag and Mr. Tagliabue, Mr. Austrian, Mr. Goodell, and Mr. Richardson, the chairman of the stadium committee, and Mr. Benson, chairman of finance.

Mr. Browne's comments the night before prepared them for what was coming.

"It wasn't pressure per se but it was pressure in the sense that you've got the heavyweights of the NFL saying 'Why would it be a problem if the team didn't arrive for a couple of years?' " Mr. Moag said.

"I wasn't the least bit interested in assuming the risk of having the team play elsewhere and we build a stadium and God knows what would happen," Mr. Moag said.

Mr. Modell delivered an emotional defense and said he was not interested in parting with his team, even temporarily, even under the circumstances the league was offering that would spare him liability for losses and any capital gains taxes. League officials said they were worried the Maryland Legislature would kill the stadium, leaving it with its first homeless franchise. Mr. Moag assured them the deal was solid and said he was not going to change the contract he and Mr. Modell signed Oct. 27.

The notion of the NFL extending Baltimore's long wait was finally dead.

Concessions on both sides

That hurdle cleared, the rest of the package came together fairly quickly. Mr. Modell increased his offer for reparations, agreeing to compensate the city for millions of dollars in lost admissions taxes, bringing its offer to Cleveland up to about $12 million -- a few million more than it had hoped for but still acceptable.

Mr. Modell also agreed to the unprecedented step of giving up the Browns' history and heritage, essentially parting with a team identity he had successfully built over more than three decades.

Mr. Modell further agreed to pay the league a $29 million relocation fee and forgo his share of the expansion fee if a team is created for Cleveland.

The NFL agreed to front Cleveland $28 million to $48 million for its stadium and to accept restrictions sought by the city on what team can be moved there: only franchises that are not in violation of their leases and meet the league's eight-point test for nonsupport.

The league also agreed to the outline of a lease, which it will transfer to a new Cleveland team owner by 1999. In exchange for dropping its suit against the Browns and Maryland Stadium Authority, the city agreed to put its football future in the hands of the league. It cannot seek a team on its own, thus sparing the NFL another embarrassing Seahawks situation.

Mr. Nance said the city realized the limitations of its leverage. If successful, its lawsuit could have forced the Browns to stay for only three years. But that would have inflicted on the NFL the humiliation of a team held hostage.

"They made it clear that under those circumstances the likelihood of us getting [another] football team was nil," Mr. Nance said.

The final handshake came at about 8 p.m. EST, after a long day of shuttle diplomacy by the NFL between the Cleveland and Browns delegations -- which never met in the same room even after the deal was accomplished.

The league ratified it late Friday morning after several hours of sometimes emotional, sometimes tedious debate about the league's power to control its franchises and its obligations to fans as loyal as those in Cleveland.

The final tally of 25-2 was two votes more than the team needed, a testament, several owners said, to Modell's contributions over the years in establishing the NFL as the nation's most successful sports league. The resolution allowing him to move is final even if the Cleveland agreement fails to win final approval by the NFL and Cleveland City Council.

After signing the documents in a short ceremony with Tagliabue, White struck a conciliatory tone, one that was in sharp contrast to his months of Modell-bashing. The two men conducted back-to-back news conferences and left the hotel without appearing together.

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