Ravens majority owner Art Modell has agreed to a $3 million settlement in a class-action lawsuit brought by Cleveland Browns fans angry about the team's 1995 move to Baltimore, lawyers in the case said yesterday.
Under a preliminary settlement approved yesterday by a judge in Cuyahoga County, Ohio, the holders of 40,000 Browns season tickets would be eligible for $50 per seat and would be given the choice of taking cash or donating the proceeds to charity.
The NFL is to pay a portion of the settlement, but the amount would depend in part on how many of the season-ticket holders choose to donate their awards to a fund supporting youth football and recreation programs, an attorney for Modell said.
An NFL spokesman last night declined to comment on the league's portion, saying the extent of the NFL's commitment has not been finalized.
The Ravens' ownership would pay about $1 million in legal fees and expenses, lawyers in the case said.
The settlement, which could receive final approval at another hearing next month, would end Modell's only remaining legal entanglement from his decision to move the storied Browns franchise to Baltimore.
Modell, in a written statement, called the settlement "an appropriate end to this odyssey."
"This settlement benefits the fans who supported football and the youth who are its future," the statement said.
Modell could not be reached to elaborate because he was out of town, his office said. Ravens spokesman Kevin Byrne said that Modell met last week with league commissioner Paul Tabliabue at the NFL owners' meetings in Palm Desert, Calif., to discuss the league's participation in the settlement.
The settlement would avert a trial in a suit filed in November 1995, shortly after Modell announced his intention to move the team. Browns season-ticket holder Howard Beder charged the team with violating Ohio's consumer protection laws and with breach of contract, alleging, for instance, that Modell broke promises to keep the team in Cleveland.
That suit was merged with another that cited the Browns' poor play in the wake of the announcement and charged the team with breaching its contractual obligation to provide NFL-quality football. All but one of the allegations were dismissed as the case moved between pre-trial rulings and appellate reviews over the past several years.
In the remaining unresolved issue, the season-ticket holders charged that, by moving, Modell breached their contractual right to renew their tickets for the next year.
In the end, the case was more of a statement about sports fans' rights as paying customers than it was about Cleveland's lingering anger toward Modell, said plaintiffs' lawyer Joshua R. Cohen.
"The case signifies that sports fans and those who patronize sports teams are consumers, and they need to be treated the way other consumers are treated. That's an important proposition given the amount of money that is spent on sports and the concessions communities are making to sports teams," Cohen said.
He said Beder, from the start, had insisted that ticket holders be offered the chance to contribute the money to charity. The donations would go to a fund to benefit youth programs in northeast Ohio. The fund would be administered by a board composed of Cleveland civic leaders and former Browns.