NFL bid enters stretch drive City and Browns brace for expected vote on move

February 07, 1996|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,SUN STAFF

This could be the week that Baltimore is welcomed back into the NFL family. Or, it could mark the beginning of a new and bitter feud.

Team owners begin congregating in Chicago tonight for meetings scheduled to culminate Friday with a vote on the application of the Cleveland Browns to move to Baltimore.

League approval would greatly help the team on a number of fronts, weakening opposition by legislators in Annapolis and reducing Cleveland's leverage in negotiations to settle a lawsuit docketed for trial on Monday.

It would also return the league to Baltimore, where it spent some of its formative years. Colts games in the 1950s and 1960s before packed crowds helped sell the networks on the fledgling league. The team moved to Indianapolis in 1984.

A rejection -- and there are elements of the league that would like to stop the move -- would likely bring the Browns into the antitrust lawsuit filed by the Maryland Stadium Authority last month, opening a new and protracted legal fight over the role of the NFL in keeping teams out of Baltimore.

Much of the focus today and tomorrow will be on negotiations toward a settlement with the city of Cleveland. The league and city agreed last month to seek a "mutually satisfactory" resolution of the city's suit to keep the team through the final three seasons of its lease.

Officials for both sides have been negotiating via conference calls and meetings in Cleveland and New York. If there is an agreement, it could come as late as tomorrow or Friday morning -- on the eve of the owner's vote.

Sources familiar with the talks say the parties are still talking, and will reconvene in Chicago this morning in the suburban hotel where the owners will meet -- the same hotel where the league passed over Baltimore in its 1993 expansion and where owners failed to intercede when the Colts moved.

An agreement would greatly diminish opposition to the Browns' move among NFL owners, and would free the team from the court order that restricts it from selling season tickets and promoting itself in Baltimore.

Marketing experts have begun planning for this, and there is talk of player appearances and a name-the-team contest as early as next week to generate interest in the team.

But the owners must vote first.

A joint meeting of the NFL stadium and finance committees convenes tonight at 7 with the Browns and team relocation at the top of the agenda. The committees could set a recommendation tonight or reconvene tomorrow morning. The meeting of all teams begins tomorrow at noon with an extension of the collective bargaining agreement up first, followed, probably on Friday, by a vote on the Browns.

Both Browns officials and Cleveland's mayor have been asked to be in Chicago to answer questions and, if need be, sign a deal. Maryland Stadium Authority chairman John Moag said he also will be there.

The Browns have offered to pay off the remaining years of their lease at Cleveland Stadium, something they estimate will cost about $2 million. They also have hinted at a willingness to part with the team name and colors, for use by another team that may end up in Cleveland.

League officials have spent several weeks trying to sort out the mess and have repeatedly said they want teams in both cities. But there is little chance of instant expansion -- although the idea is catching on with some owners -- and the league has tried to keep teams from talking to Cleveland about relocating in time for Friday's vote.

One of the leading options now under discussion, according to sources familiar with the talks, is to give one city the Browns and the other city a binding resolution promising it a franchise in a few years when a new stadium is built.

The question is which city gets which.

There are elements in the league that are angry about the Browns' turmoil and would like Baltimore and team owner Art Modell to endure the inconvenience and losses of turning his team over to a league trust or local owners and waiting for another franchise.

Modell has rejected this idea, as recently as the past few days when it appeared that some league officials were leaning toward giving Baltimore the expansion team.

Cleveland and the NFL have talked extensively about Cleveland Stadium and where a team would play temporarily if the facility underwent a complete renovation or a new facility was built on the site.

Among the difficult issues under discussion are the ways Cleveland can be satisfied without the current franchise, such as through the resolution, and demands for a new team this year.

The league has signaled its preference for a new stadium in Cleveland and the city has acknowledged the advantages of that. But the city has said it cannot pay anything beyond the $175 million already pledged in bonds and cash. The league has said it could offer some assistance, but the amount and type are the subject of disagreement.

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