Moag says right things, but can't hide hurt

September 24, 1999|By Ken Rosenthal

John Moag was eating lunch at a downtown Baltimore restaurant yesterday when he was asked about his relationship with the Modells.

"I'm a fan of the Ravens," Moag said, looking away, declining to elaborate on Ravens owner Art Modell and his son, team president David Modell.

Moag, former chairman of the Maryland Stadium Authority, forged a seemingly impenetrable bond with the Modells when he orchestrated the Browns' move from Cleveland to Baltimore after the 1995 season.

But four years later, the Ravens have lost 33 of 50 games, while two other teams that Moag pursued, the Arizona Cardinals and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, have made the playoffs.

Four years later, the Ravens continue to be haunted by suffocating debt that has more than doubled since their move from Cleveland, and face potential takeover by the NFL.

Four years later, the Ravens rejected Moag and his new firm, Legg Mason Wood Walker, in favor of Deutsche Banc Alex. Brown to restructure the team's debt and help find a minority investor.

Regrets?

Moag won't say.

But it's probably safe to assume that this has yet to turn out the way he expected when he appeared with Art Modell at a triumphant news conference on the future site of PSINet Stadium in November 1995.

It has yet to turn out the way anyone expected -- not for the fans who invested in permanent seat licenses, not for the state officials who thought they were getting a rock of a franchise and certainly not for Modell.

Moag, now managing director of the sports industry group for Legg Mason, seemed an obvious choice to find the Ravens a minority investor, considering that he had cut the lucrative deal that brought Modell to Baltimore.

Modell, however, aligned with Alex. Brown, an investment banking firm, rather than Legg Mason, which he apparently perceived as more of a retail brokerage house.

"John Moag still remains our friend. So does Chip Mason," Modell said in July. "Sometimes, you have to make a decision and go with it. The bank involvement gives you some additional sources of strength that Legg Mason, which is not in the banking business, doesn't have."

David Modell, too, said the team's decision was no reflection on Moag.

"The Modell family and the greater Ravens family feel very strongly toward John and Peggy Moag," David said last night. "Not only did John shepherd through the deal to relocate the team, but John and Peggy were outstanding in helping so many of us get settled in the community.

"Our relationship with John quite clearly complicated our decision-making, no question about it."

But, in the end, Moag was left without a client that Legg Mason probably expected him to deliver for its expanding sports business, a client that owes its existence in large part to his efforts four years ago.

If Moag had lured another franchise to Baltimore, Modell probably would have been forced to sell the Browns, and the price for a team with an aging stadium might have been less than $200 million.

That probably would have been enough for Modell to cover his debt, but not enough to leave him wealthy. What's more, his sons, David and John, would not have inherited the team.

As it turns out, Modell might be forced to sell, anyway. But his franchise now might be worth between $400 million and $500 million thanks mostly to the sweetheart deal he received from the state of Maryland.

A deal cut by John Moag.

"It's a private business. They have every right to select who they want to select, the bank they want," Moag said.

"I honestly, truly wish them well. They're a major part of a major event in my life. I'm the last person in the world who wants to see them fail. I want to see them succeed and come out of the problems they're having right now."

Moag is a pragmatist, moving from deal to deal, understanding that some will elude him. On Sunday, he will use his four season tickets on the lower level, and watch a game he helped make possible. The creation of the Ravens led to the rebirth of the Browns.

Indeed, it seems like only yesterday that Art Modell signed the deal at BWI Airport on a private jet belonging to his former friend, Al Lerner -- the same Lerner who helped him negotiate the move to Baltimore and now owns the Browns.

"It really does show you that life is stranger than fiction," Moag said. "If you would have told me four years ago that a weekend like this would be coming up, with the old Cleveland Browns playing the new Cleveland Browns, and the guy who helped facilitate the move is the owner of the new Browns the ironies don't stop."

Nor do the questions.

Hindsight is 20-20, but what if Moag and Gov. Parris N. Glendening had gone in another direction? What if they had pushed for the Buccaneers or Cardinals instead of the Browns?

Moag thought he was bringing a winner to town, even though the Browns were headed for their fifth losing record in six seasons.

He thought Modell, an important figure in NFL history, was a better choice to restore Baltimore's football glory than the Glazers in Tampa Bay or Bill Bidwill in Arizona.

"Art was a great football man, totally dedicated to winning," Moag said. "Winning is what got him in trouble financially. He wanted so badly to put the right product on the field that he borrowed.

"The other reason is that he was a better person than the others. The Glazers, of course, had trashed Baltimore. Bidwill had tons of baggage. Art had always been very involved in the community. He had always given back to the community. And he's done that here."

But what about the rest of the bargain? The failures on the field? The financial problems off it? The Moag-Modell relationship that proved so successful four years ago, but the Modells declined to renew?

John Moag looked away.

No sense looking back.

Pub Date: 9/24/99

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