Forget legal avenues, take Baltimore's route to NFL

November 30, 1995|By KEN ROSENTHAL

"Save Our Browns," that's what Cleveland keeps shouting.

Why?

Cleveland doesn't want the Browns, not with Art Modell as owner. Cleveland wants a football team called the Browns. That should be the city's entire focus now.

The court fights, the Senate subcommittee hearings, even yesterday's rally outside the U.S. Capitol -- they're largely exercises in frustration.

The cover of this week's Sports Illustrated depicts Modell sucker-punching a doubled-over Dawg Pound denizen. Cleveland is responding like a punch-drunk fighter, trying to hit anything that moves.

What's the point? Keeping the Browns through 1998 might hurt Modell, but it wouldn't prevent him from moving to Baltimore. Nor would it serve Cleveland's goal of returning to the NFL.

The way to return to the NFL is to steal a team.

And the way to do that is to follow the Baltimore plan.

First, Cleveland needs to complete its stadium renovation package, the $175 million mishmash described by Modell as "all smoke and mirrors" in a recent court deposition.

Then, it needs to start selling permanent seat licenses, luxury boxes and club seats, all the wonderful prerequisites an NFL owner requires.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers would be on their way.

Owner Malcolm Glazer offered to pay for half of a new stadium in Tampa, and the team still sold only 32,557 PSLs, far short of the 50,000 it wanted for stadium funding.

Cleveland should get busy: If Glazer was willing to make such a substantial commitment in Tampa, surely he'd help finance the renovation of Cleveland Stadium.

Heck, the Browns are still drawing crowds of 60,000 even with Modell planning to move. Think the Colts would have done that after Robert Irsay announced he was heading to Indianapolis?

Glazer would embrace the support, and Cleveland would embrace Glazer. Modell bought the Browns in 1961, and the team has yet to appear in a Super Bowl. Glazer, in his first year as an owner, can't do any worse.

"The Bucs in '96" -- that should be Cleveland's slogan, not "Save Our Browns." The city could get rid of Modell and Bill Belichick, and keep the Browns name by reaching an out-of-court settlement with Modell.

The name, like everything else in sports, is just one more bargaining chip. It might be all Cleveland gets out of a court fight, but it would be enough.

What if Cleveland won in court, forcing the Browns to honor their lease through '98? The idea would be to bring Modell to financial ruin, and force him to sell the team.

That would accomplish nothing.

The new owner of the Browns would assume all of Modell's contractual obligations -- including his 30-year lease with the Maryland Stadium Authority.

"There's no way around it," stadium authority chairman John Moag said yesterday. "And Art Modell is not going to sell the team."

It's too important an investment. Modell would lose about one-third of the sales price to capital gains taxes. And after he died, his heirs would owe estate taxes on the proceeds.

The Browns are coming, OK? Moag tangled with Ohio Sen. Mike DeWine at yesterday's congressional subcommittee hearing on antitrust issues. But as a premier lobbyist with a Washington firm, he knows it was all for show.

To block the Browns, Congress would need to pass new antitrust legislation before the NFL owners voted on the move Jan. 17.

Fat chance.

Congress will do nothing. Congress always does nothing.

NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue?

Ditto.

Before his congressional appearance yesterday, Moag studied the minutes of a similar hearing that took place at the request of the Maryland delegation after the Colts left Baltimore in 1984.

"It's amazing," Moag said. "All you've got to do is change the names of the teams. It's the exact same stuff."

It took Baltimore 11 years to figure out the proper response. Cleveland needn't wait that long, if its politicians wake up.

Leave it to Moag, the shrewd pragmatist and master team thief, to assess the value of Cleveland's tirade.

"There are two aspects of this," Moag said. "First, you're lashing out, you're angry, you're ticked off, you fight. It's the same thing we did. No different.

"The politicians are very much interested in a fight. It deflects the finger-pointing. They may have lost the team under their watch. But they want to make sure they're the captains of the fight.

"Second, you want to be jockeying the best you can to get in position with the NFL. Picking a fight with Art Modell doesn't really do anything for you. The whole thing might be to work up to some commitment from Tagliabue. I don't know what the commitment would be. Maybe something along the lines of the resolution we were seeking."

In other words, Cleveland is relying on politicians who are trying to save their hides and a commissioner who is afraid of his shadow.

Better it should appeal to an individual owner's greed.

Better it should pull a Baltimore.

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