Deal clears NFL path to Baltimore

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 stadium and the finance committees," said Robert Tisch, co-owner of the New York Giants.

The agreement also must be translated into a final, written contract, which must be approved by NFL owners at their meetings next month and by the Cleveland City Council.

Mr. Tagliabue made no public comments last night, but issued a statement saying, "This is a historic agreement."

Browns owner Art Modell said: "I am happy for the people of Cleveland. I am happy for the people of Baltimore, and I am happy most of all for the Modell family.

"It has been a long siege and I am happy it is almost over."

On Nov. 6, Mr. Modell announced his intention to move the Browns, 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 clubs 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.

John W. Frece, a spokesman for Parris N. Glendening, said the Maryland governor "is encouraged by today's action by NFL owners in Chicago. He is optimistic that the owners will return an NFL franchise to Baltimore, where it belongs."

Mr. Moag, meanwhile, said the Maryland Stadium Authority will drop its $36 million antitrust suit against the league once the agreement is final.

Likewise, the deal calls for Cleveland to drop its lawsuit against the Browns, a case that was scheduled for trial Monday. The city sought to force the Browns to play the final three seasons of their lease at Cleveland Stadium.

Instead, Cleveland 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.

Also, the new club must sign a 30-year lease. Fred Nance, lead attorney for Cleveland in the negotiations, said, "While we could have, I have no doubt, kept this team here for the next three years, we instead get a team for the next 30 years."

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 BTC years. That money likely will come from the sale of permanent seat licenses (PSLs) 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 forgo 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 NFL will provide Cleveland, which will be paid back with interest by the team that eventually plays there. The agreement specifies that the league will lend $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, an ardent opponent 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 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 two 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.

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. The team will move into the stadium in 1998.

There are efforts in the General Assembly to revoke funding for the stadium, but Mr. Moag said he is confident they will not succeed.

"I think this is good news, basically," said state Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, chairwoman of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee and a key supporter of the stadium plan. "Now all of the lawsuits are off and Mr. Modell can move."

Ms. Hoffman said, though, that it was unclear whether Mr. Modell would have lower-than-expected relocation costs.

"If his costs are less, then we may have better grounds to use some of the PSL money for construction," Ms. Hoffman said.

Many legislators want to tap into the money generated by the sale of PSLs to help build the stadium and lower the state's costs.

Deal's key points

* Cleveland will get a new NFL team by 1999, either by expansion or the move of an existing franchise that meets league criteria for relocation.

* The Browns immediately will move to Baltimore and leave behind their name and colors.

* The NFL will lend $28 million to $48 million to Cleveland to help build a stadium. The loan will be repaid by the owners of the new Cleveland team. * Cleveland will stay all litigation, pending today's vote by NFL owners.

* Browns owner Art Modell will reimburse Cleveland for up about $12 million in legal expenses and damages. He also will pay the NFL a relocation fee of $29 million.

-Sun staff writers Ken Rosenthal, Mike Preston, Vito Stellino and Thomas W. Waldron contributed to this article.