Would-be owners of Browns hoping to bid NFL hello 4 to make pitches today

price tag for new team could reach $1 billion

September 08, 1998|By Vito Stellino | Vito Stellino,SUN STAFF

CHICAGO -- "Do I hear $350 million?"

"Do I hear $400 million?"

"Do I hear $450 million?

"Do I hear "

There really won't be an auctioneer pounding a gavel and asking for bids today when the NFL owners meet to pick an owner for the new Cleveland Browns franchise.

In effect, though, the NFL is auctioning off an expansion franchise for the first time because it is asking the four finalists to bid for the team.

The bid estimates have ranged from $450 million -- which was recently bid for the Washington Redskins -- to $1 billion.

There is likely to be some spirited debate today between the owners who want to take the highest bidder and the ones who favor a particular owner when they get their first look at the bids.

The finalists are billionaire banker Al Lerner, the Dolan brothers (Charles, who owns Cablevision, and Larry), Howard Milstein, a New York real-estate developer who owns the New York Islanders, and Bart Wolstein, a Cleveland real-estate developer.

The winning bidder needs 23 votes.

One of the subplots in the process is the role of Ravens owner Art Modell, who left Cleveland for Baltimore after the 1995 season.

Modell has said he is supporting the group headed by the Dolans, but it's no secret that he is opposing the group held by Lerner, his former minority partner.

Although the Baltimore deal was signed on Lerner's plane, Lerner distanced himself from Modell after the move.

Lerner's version of the rift:

"When Art left, we started talking less and less. I started hearing some things which I won't repeat, and I have no idea whether they were true or not, but they weren't very positive. It just sort of drifted. There was no argument," he said.

Modell won't comment on the split or react to Lerner's version.

"I want to live my own life. Let him live his," he said.

Modell spoke about all four groups at a committee meeting in New York last week, but he jokingly said he didn't go to bash Lerner.

"I'm not a basher. I'm a lover. I'm Viagra's man of the year," he said with a smile.

In an interview yesterday in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, John Moag, the head of the Maryland Stadium Authority, who has declined to speak on the Lerner-Modell relationship in the past, said: "Art felt incredibly betrayed by Al. He thought it was a true friendship. To see his best friend walk on him after helping him to negotiate the deal was such an intense blow to him. There is so much pain and anger associated with Al Lerner that this whole thing about him getting the team is like opening the wound."

Moag added: "This is a man permanently scarred by the move. It's not many days that I talk to him that Cleveland doesn't come up. For the first two years, he was physically and emotionally in LTC bad shape. If someone said he could come back to Cleveland, he'd do it in a heartbeat. The Al situation just opens all of this back up."

Moag also said Modell was left with a bad taste in his mouth during negotiations for Modell's buyout of Lerner. Lerner owned 9 percent of the team and half the stadium corporation when the team moved.

Moag conceded in the article that Lerner acted on Modell's wishes when he negotiated the move.

"It's true that Art was broke and really had no choice but to sell the team or move it. He was a cornered rat, and his friend presented him with his only options," Moag was quoted as saying.

Moag said last night from his home that he declined to comment on the Plain Dealer article.

In Cleveland, they're not happy about Modell even having a voice in the matter.

The Plain Dealer recently ran an editorial saying, "As an owner, Modell has a vote [but] the rancorous words of untrustworthy Art Modell should be kept out of the debate."

The only sure thing about the meeting is that Lerner won't get Modell's vote.

Browns bidders

The four businessmen bidding to become the new owner of the Cleveland Browns today:

Al Lerner: Lerner, 64, is CEO of MBNA, a leading credit card issuer. His net worth was estimated at $2.5 billion before the latest stock market decline. Has been endorsed by Cleveland Mayor Michael White and former Browns quarterback Bernie Kosar. Former San Francisco 49ers president Carmen Policy would run the team for him.

Charles Dolan and Larry Dolan: Larry, 67, would serve as team president, although brother Charles, 71, has more financial clout. He's the founder of HBO and Cablevision, which also owns Madison Square Garden, the NBA's New York Knicks and the NHL's New York Rangers, which could cause cross-ownership problems. Comedian Bill Cosby and former Baltimore Colts and Miami Dolphins coach Don Shula are members of the group.

Howard Milstein: Milstein, 48, is a New York real-estate tycoon who owns the NHL's New York Islanders. He has pledged to sell the Islanders if he gets the Browns to avoid cross- ownership issues. Ex-Browns Paul Warfield and Calvin Hill would run the team for him.

Bart Wolstein: Wolstein, 71, a Cleveland real-estate developer, stresses that all his investors are from Ohio, but he may lack the financial clout to win the bidding. Indeed, the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported today that he'll be dropped before the owners vote.

Pub Date: 9/08/98

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