Deal near in move of Browns? NFL, Cleveland talk

final word may hinge on White's approval

February 08, 1996|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Vito Stellino contributed to this article.

CHICAGO -- The city of Cleveland and the NFL were close to a deal last night that would clear the way for the Browns to move to Baltimore for the 1996 season.

Both sides met for more than eight hours yesterday and made significant progress, according to one source familiar with the talks who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Cleveland Mayor Michael White was scheduled to fly in this morning, at which time the final agreement could come together, according to sources.

A league spokesman, however, cautioned that a vote by the owners on the move -- scheduled for tomorrow -- might be delayed.

"It's a question mark," said NFL spokesman Joe Browne. "There may not be a vote if there's no agreement among the parties."

The framework for an agreement that emerged yesterday calls for the city to drop its lawsuit against the team, in exchange for the Browns' giving up the rights to the team's name and colors, paying legal fees to the city and about $2 million in rent for the final three years of their lease at Cleveland Stadium.

The league, in turn, would assist Cleveland in financing a new stadium, possibly through a diversion of some stadium revenues or other sources, and would promise a team to the city when the stadium is constructed.

"Things could happen as early as Thursday," said one source. "It is going very well. There is, for the first time since Nov. 6, a real likelihood of a conclusion to this."

But, said the source, the agreement also could fall apart rapidly.

Maryland Stadium Authority chairman John Moag said "things are going a lot better" but declined to discuss specifics of the negotiations.

Moag is in Chicago and initially was told to be on hand to answer questions if necessary from committees of NFL owners who met last night. Shortly before the committees gathered, however, the league told Moag and Browns owner Art Modell not to come to the hotel where the committees were meeting.

"I take that as a good sign," Moag said.

"I think there is progress but this is football and it is volatile."

Nancy Lesic, a spokeswoman for Mayor White, said: "There is no deal yet. There have been certain issues that have been worked on but everything is not concluded yet. We're getting down to the nitty gritty."

Browns spokesman David Hobcraft said: "Talks are under way and we're encouraged that it seems everyone wants a solution and everyone is working toward that."

Browne said the situation has not reached an impasse and that he is hopeful for a settlement.

"I'm more optimistic than pessimistic, but it comes with no guarantees before we leave here," Browne said. "That's why it's not something you can do overnight -- why it's taken as long as it has and it continues."

The announcement last November that the Browns were moving to Baltimore set off a firestorm of protest from fans across the country, and produced an immediate lawsuit from the city seeking to force the team to play the final three seasons of its lease in town.

Cleveland has assembled $175 million in borrowing authority and cash to finance stadium improvements. But many in the league think a new stadium would be better, which would cost much more.

Maryland responded last month with an antitrust suit against the league over its refusal to vote on the Browns' relocation at a special meeting called for that purpose last month.

If the NFL approves the move, Maryland's lawsuit presumably would be dropped.

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