GRAPEVINE, Texas -- The likely relocation of the Cleveland Browns has raised painful questions in the National Football League about its sometimes conflicting obligations to fans and profits.
"If this can happen to Cleveland, then no NFL community is safe," Cleveland Mayor Michael R. White said.
In fact, the move of the Browns -- despite an enthusiastic following in Cleveland for 50 seasons -- suggests that it may take more than loyal fans to keep a football team.
"In the NFL, the fans are very important. I don't know if the NFL has forgotten that," said Pittsburgh Steelers president Dan Rooney, an old-line NFL owner who says he probably will oppose a move of the Browns.
"The answer is not to pick up and move," said Mr. Rooney between sessions of the NFL's fall meetings, held in this Dallas suburb.
Among the 30 existing teams, eight have moved since the 1930s, although three have done it twice.
But if the Browns move to Baltimore and the Oilers move to Nashville, Tenn. -- an announcement expected any day -- that will mark the 1990s as the least stable decade for the NFL since the 1930s.
And the music hasn't stopped: The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Seattle Seahawks, Arizona Cardinals and Cincinnati Bengals are considered candidates to move if they don't get new stadiums.
It could be that the league that spent years in court fighting free agency for its players has entered an era of franchise free agency.
"People can appreciate a businessman trying to improve his situation. But you hate to see instability in the league," said Indianapolis Colts vice president Jim Irsay, whose father, Bob Irsay, shocked the sports world by moving the team from Baltimore in 1984.
Persistent instability could drain support if fans come to perceive the league as hostile to them. But prohibiting moves would cut deeply into the profitability and value of NFL franchises.
"They could stop this if they wanted to," said Stephen Ross, a University of Illinois law professor and former Justice Department antitrust attorney.
The NFL's rules on franchise relocation are too vague to be enforceable, something the league probably intended when it wrote them, Mr. Ross said. If the rules -- the league calls them "guidelines" -- were more specific, then communities such as Cleveland could use them against the league, he
Also, if the teams were willing to share sky-box rent and other stadium revenue with each other, it would diminish the value of moving to a new stadium, he said.
Lush revenue from new stadiums, such as the one Baltimore has promised to build the Browns, is largely to blame for the recent moves. Changes in the league's economic structure, related to its labor contract with players and revenue-sharing tradition, have put a premium on stadium income.
For all the public hand-wringing of team owners, they depend on the spoken or unspoken threat of moving to get public funds for new stadiums, said Kenneth Shropshire, author of "The Sports Franchise Game," a book about cities and their pursuit of pro sports teams.
"If nobody else can move, you may not get the reception you want at home," said Mr. Shropshire, professor of legal studies and real estate at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Economics.
Mayors and governors are more than willing to play the franchise game, despite the dubious financial return on public investment, because of the popularity of sports, he said.
"It's easier to run an ad saying, 'I brought the Browns to Baltimore' than to say, 'I brought the Acme factory here,' " Mr. Shropshire said.
Baseball, with an exemption to antitrust law bestowed years ago by the Supreme Court, has greater control over its franchises. But it also has had greater success than football in getting new stadiums, something NFL executives privately admit to some jealousy about.
But the huge stadium costs and relatively short, 16-game season in the NFL may require more vigorous nudging of civic officials.
Browns' move a help
Several team officials acknowledged that a high-profile move such as the Browns' may help them in their negotiations with city hall.
"Obviously, it's a wake-up call for cities that have sports teams. I don't want to suggest relocations are good, because I don't believe that. But sometimes they are necessary," Denver Broncos owner Pat Bowlen said.
Buccaneers general manager Rich McKay, whose team is seeking a new stadium, said a move such as the Browns' "sends a message, but it sends a message that we've tried to send in a different way."
Browns owner Art Modell actually is one of the most adamant about the need for stability. He said he resisted issuing public demands on his city and state's depleted treasuries, but could not afford to stay in 64-year-old Cleveland Stadium.
"Moving franchises helter-skelter is not in the interest of the NFL unless there are powerful reasons," said Mr. Modell, who still says the Colts were not justified in leaving Baltimore.