League-builder Modell never the maverick type But as old-guard symbol, his influence has slipped

Owner

November 10, 1995|By Vito Stellino | Vito Stellino,SUN STAFF

Owner Art Modell of the Cleveland Browns and Baltimore are a perfect fit.

Both played key roles in the rise of the NFL. And both fell out of favor during Paul Tagliabue's reign as commissioner.

In 1981, Modell was labeled in one poll as the second most influential person in the league behind then-commissioner Pete Rozelle.

That was in the heyday of what became known as "league think," when a handful of influential owners supported what was in the best interests of the league.

It wasn't surprising Modell was one of the strongest opponents of the move of the Raiders from Oakland, Calif., to Los Angeles in 1982. At the time, nobody dreamed Modell would follow the trail blazed by Raiders owner Al Davis.

Modell was never the maverick type. For almost three decades, he remained one of Rozelle's most loyal supporters. And when it came to negotiating with the TV networks, Rozelle and Modell were quite a team.

In 1962, the entire league got $4.65 million a year from CBS. The big breakthrough came in 1964, when Rozelle and Modell negotiated a deal bringing in $14.1 million a year for the league.

That was $1 million a year for each team -- one-fourth of what Modell had paid for the Browns three years earlier. From then on, each new contract would escalate.

In 1967, Modell was elected president of the NFL after the merger with the AFL.

When it came time to implement the merger in 1970, the league had trouble finding three teams to go to what would become the AFC so each conference would have 13 teams.

Modell and the late Art Rooney, founder of the Steelers, broke the logjam when they decided to go together to the AFC. Neither would consent to go unless they made the move together. They didn't want to break up the Steeler-Browns rivalry.

The merger gave Rozelle and Modell even more clout with the networks. They started "Monday Night Football," which has become one of the longest-running prime-time shows in TV history. Over three decades, Modell helped negotiate $8.4 billion worth of TV contracts.

His philosophy was that the league should be a partner with the networks. He figured that if the networks made a profit, it was better for both sides.

That's why he became concerned when the networks started losing money on the $3.46 billion deal they negotiated in 1990. It averaged about $32 million a year for each team, but was scheduled to escalate to about $40 million in 1993, the final year of the deal.

He negotiated a rebate with the networks in which the league would scale back to $32 million in 1993 in return for a two-year extension in 1994 and 1995 at $32 million a year.

But the newer owners, led by Jerry Jones of the Dallas Cowboys, fought the rebate idea. Although the majority of owners favored the idea, Modell fell two or three votes shy of the 21 needed for approval.

Jones was vindicated when Rupert Murdoch of Fox outbid CBS for the NFC rights in 1994 in a record-shattering $1.6 billion deal that helped raise the TV revenue for each team close to $40 million.

It was the second time Modell had been on the losing side on a major issue. In 1989, he was on the committee that recommended Jim Finks, then the president of the New Orleans Saints, as the new commissioner.

A group of new-guard owners -- again featuring Jones -- blocked Finks to send a message to the old-guard owners that they were going to assert themselves.

The dispute dragged on for months. Neither side could get the 19 votes needed.

Modell tried to broker a compromise in which Tagliabue would be the No. 2 man and take over when Finks, who since has died from cancer, retired.

"My choice was to have Finks for three or four years and then have Tagliabue take over, a dream ticket," he said. "The fallout from the search lasted a long time."

Modell and Wellington Mara, owner of the New York Giants, were appointed to another five-man committee to forge a solution.

Since the pro-Tagliabue forces were adamant about not compromising, Modell was convinced that it was in the best interests of the league to boost Tagliabue.

Modell and Mara threw their support to Tagliabue, and he was elected.

But Modell had learned a lesson. The days of league think were over.

The newer owners only would support what was in their best interests, not what was in the league's best interests.

Stressing he was acting out of "need, not greed," Modell announced on Monday that he was moving the Browns.

Old friends such as Mara, Dan Rooney of Pittsburgh and Ralph Wilson of Buffalo anguished over the move, but Jones was one of the most vocal supporters.

In more than three decades, Modell had come full circle.

He finally was looking out for himself.

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