Modell says forced stay would hurt Owner testifies at hearing to keep Browns three years

'A very serious blow'

Ruling not expected at conclusion today

November 22, 1995|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,SUN STAFF

CLEVELAND -- Browns owner Art Modell testified yesterday that the financial survival of his NFL franchise would be threatened if it is forced to play three more years here.

Appearing amid heightened security and surrounded by bodyguards, Modell said the court order the city is seeking to make him play out his lease here would cut deeply into revenues from ticket sales, advertising, sponsorships and media rights.

"It would be a very serious blow to the Browns and would probably affect its viability," Modell said.

The team owner appeared on the second day of a hearing scheduled to conclude today. Cuyahoga County Common Pleas PTC Judge Kenneth R. Callahan said he would rule soon after the hearing ended, but probably not today.

The city is seeking a court order that would force the Browns to play the next three years in Cleveland Memorial Stadium, fulfilling the terms of a lease signed in 1974.

The current hearings are the second of a three-step process: The judge has ordered the team to stay put until he decides whether the team should be forced to stay until the city can present its case for what would amount to a three-year order -- a process that could take months.

Meanwhile, the city is trying to convince the NFL not to allow the move at all, and also is considering other legal avenues that could block the move. Maryland officials say they are confident the team cannot be blocked from moving, but do worry that the judge -- a Cleveland-raised jurist who faces his first re-election next year -- could delay the move for several months or years.

The team says that would be disastrous, and points to the steep drop-off in attendance at recent games and the near-total cancellation of sponsorships and stadium advertising.

"The Browns are in a very precarious financial situation, and it has worsened in recent weeks with the drop in revenue," Modell testified.

One way or another, the team will be moving to Baltimore, and forcing it to play three lame-duck seasons before hostile crowds would be financially ruinous and unsafe, he said.

He and other team officials have received death threats since the Nov. 6 announcement of the move, and the team's training center and stadium have gotten bomb threats, he said. He has hired extra guards who are even escorting some team personnel home every day.

The loss in revenue also will hurt the teams who come to play the Browns, because their 40 percent share of the gate receipts will be diminished. And it will make it tough to sign pricey players and compete on the field, he said.

"The longer the Browns stay here as a lame duck, the greater the negative effects on the city's efforts to get another team. The member clubs would view it very negatively," Modell said.

He said he tried to work out a deal to stay in Cleveland but !B received nothing but "stonewalling" because the mayor, despite sincere efforts, failed to achieve a political consensus on how to pay for stadium renovations in addition to other high-priced developments. He never received a proposal from Cleveland until after announcing the move, he said.

Testifying before Modell yesterday, Cleveland Mayor Michael R. White said the city's reputation already has been sullied by the announced move. But leaving at the end of this season, as the team wants to do, would cost the city even more in prestige, tax receipts and quality of life.

"You cannot measure the outpouring of real love for the team in the community. That is not something that can be measured on a calculator. . . . [Browns games] are a real melting pot of fellowship in our community," White said.

The mayor, however, reversed earlier statements he had made suggesting he was talking to other team owners or the NFL about getting a team to move to Cleveland. He said yesterday that he has not had such discussions.

He also retracted yesterday an earlier statement that he would have done the same thing as Baltimore. "I have serious moral and ethical problems taking a team from another city," White said.

Asked by a Browns attorney about the mayor's successful efforts to lure the NBA Cavaliers away from the nearby suburb of Richfield, White said it was different because the Cavs had started in Cleveland and did not break their lease. The Cavs now play in a new arena downtown.

The city also attempted to minimize the losses the team would suffer if it played out its lease, calling to the witness stand several potential corporate sponsors and even a season-ticket holder who said they would buy ads and tickets if the team were forced to stay.

The witnesses acknowledged under questioning by Browns attorneys that they were asked by the city yesterday afternoon to make such a pledge at the hearing.

One banker said his company never had advertised with the team before and was not sure what type of ad it would get. But it was willing to pledge $30,000 to $40,000 a year because the mayor, apparently using a cellular phone from the courthouse, called the bank's president and asked.

The team has attempted to show that the city's lease was not with the Browns, but with a separate entity also controlled by Modell, called the Cleveland Stadium Corp. That company has a sublease with the Browns, but agreed to let the team go in exchange for $3.6 million in lost rent.

If the city prevails at this hearing, the team could appeal. But if the team wins at this juncture, it could begin marketing tickets, planning the stadium and beginning the move. Once the team has trucked its assets across state lines, the city's chances of reclaiming it are greatly diminished -- a factor that prompted the Colts to leave Baltimore abruptly in 1984 under the cover of darkness.

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