Inside the Browns deal
As the Gulfstream jet lifted off the runway on its secret mission,Cleveland Stadium came briefly into view.
Scattered among the plane’s leather-upholstered seats were four men whoknew the stadium better than the masons who built it: Browns owner Art Modell,his son and two close advisers.
The mood was unusually subdued for this tight-knit group. Even Modell,ever ready with a quip, was reflective as the plane pierced the overcast,autumn sky. No one mentioned the stadium below. Modell saw it out of thewindow and thought -- correctly -- that he had spent the last of more than 300Sundays there.
It was shortly before dawn on Friday, Oct. 27, and the 70-year-old teamowner had not had a full night’s sleep for days. A high school dropout who hadmade enough money in television and advertising to buy the Browns at the ageof 36, Modell helped build the team and the NFL into powerhouses. Now he washeaded to Baltimore to sign papers transferring his franchise to the city.
The deal would add perhaps $60 million to the value of the franchise hebought for $4 million in 1961. In Cleveland, it would render him Public EnemyNo. 1.
His son, David Modell, got some bagels and rolls from the plane’s galleyand brought them out. James Bailey, the Browns’ executive vice president andModell’s right-hand man, busily shuffled papers on a fold-out table. Acrossfrom the elder Modell was the plane’s owner, Alfred Lerner.
The cigar-smoking billionaire had known Modell since the 1970s, bought 5percent of the team in 1982 and begun flying him to away games at a doctor’srequest after his partner suffered a heart attack. Lerner’s close relationshipwith Modell had prompted Baltimore to ask for his help two years earlier ingetting an NFL expansion franchise. He failed to deliver a single vote,including Modell’s.
Now he was flying a team to Baltimore, nonstop.
A few hundred miles away and under sunny skies, John Moag closed the doorof his home in the exclusive Baltimore suburb of Ruxton and headed for hisgreen Lexus. Chairman of the Maryland Stadium Authority for just 10 months, hewas about to score a victory that had eluded the state’s richest and mostpowerful people for 11 years.
News of the deal would make it appear breathtakingly sudden. But, inreality, it was the culmination of stealth negotiations stretching backseveral months, built upon a financial and political foundation laid yearsearlier. Vital assistance also had come from Cleveland’s corporate andgovernment elite, who failed to heed ominous warnings.
Bragging rights, however, would have to wait. The deal was top-secret, andMaryland had agreed to compensate the team if word leaked out before theBrowns’ last home game, Dec. 17, and depressed ticket sales. Only a handful oftrusted associates, and Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening, knew. And Moag’swife.
As he neared his car, he saw that she had filled it with orange and brownballoons.
Right man for the job
Before his appointment last January, Moag had followed Baltimore’sfootball quest the way most fans did -- through news reports. But Maryland’snew governor had different plans for the Washington lobbyist, whom he knewfrom their days together in Prince George’s County politics.
Glendening recognized Moag as a hustler of abundant skill and ambition,just what he needed for a job often at the center of political firefights. TheStadium Authority chairman, besides overseeing some of the state’s biggestpublic works projects, was in charge of Baltimore’s painful effort to returnto the NFL.
A month after Moag’s appointment, the two met at the State House to assesswhat had gone wrong during the city’s odyssey to return to the NFL, and todecide whether the fight could be won.
Moag had spent many of his formative years in Baltimore, living inPinehurst and, on weekends, traveling to Waverly to park cars on lawns forColts games. Now, at 41, he had the unpaid job of trying to return the legacyof Johnny Unitas to Memorial Stadium.
The Colts had spent 31 seasons there. The team’s gutsy play and riotousfans brought national respect to the city of longshoremen and steel workersbefore it all ended one slushy night in March 1984, when the shoulder pads andchampionship trophies were secretly loaded into Mayflower vans and hauled toIndianapolis.
The man charged with trying to erase that memory was viewed with suspicionby some Baltimore football fans already uneasy about the election of aRedskins supporter and non-Baltimorean as governor. Despite his Baltimoreroots, Moag was in many senses also an outsider, with a career built inWashington and its Maryland suburbs. He was the youngest partner in thehistory of Patton Boggs & Blow, one of Washington’s most powerful lobbyingfirms.
But he was a quick study, and by the time he met with the governor inFebruary, Moag had reached some conclusions about the NFL: More teams wouldcome courting Baltimore, but only to scare a better deal out of thepoliticians at home. The chance of getting a team to move here was not good.
The governor knew the agony Baltimore felt over the loss of its team, andthe elation a new team would elicit. He and Moag agreed on a basic strategy.Talks would be kept secret. An end-of-the-year deadline would be imposed, bothto spur prospects and to avoid enmeshing Glendening in a humiliating, possiblylosing effort.
At the end of the meeting, Glendening patted Moag on the back and wishedhim luck.
Moag left little to chance. First he suggested publicly that he might suethe league, charging it with keeping teams out of Baltimore to protect theWashington Redskins, a violation of antitrust laws. Then he turned his sightson specific team owners. He reasoned that anyone needing money would have toconsider Baltimore’s offer, a package of public funding assembled in 1987 byGov. William Donald Schaefer and Moag’s predecessor, Herbert J. Belgrad, tobuild two stadiums -- one to keep the Orioles and one to lure an NFL expansionteam. The deal was so lucrative it would render a franchise one of the mostvaluable in sports.
Finding a target
Like any good lobbyist, Moag worked the phones, contacting team owners andthose connected with them. Among those he visited early was First NationalBank president Frank Bramble, a friend and former associate of Lerner’s.
Lerner had gotten his start in business in Baltimore, selling furniturefor $75 a week. Later, he amassed much of his wealth here, first in realestate, then in banking, jetting between offices in Cleveland and Baltimore.Bramble knew Lerner from his days as head of Maryland National Bank. InFebruary, Moag asked the bank president to contact his old colleague to gaugehis and Modell’s interest.
It seemed improbable. The Browns were one of the most respected teams inthe league, a 49-year-old franchise rich in history and fan support. But, asMoag was about to learn, the situation in Cleveland was critical.
The fans were still enthusiastic; crowds often topped 70,000 a game. ButModell, the dean of NFL owners, was looking at yet another season in a stadiumbuilt during the Hoover administration. Meanwhile, newer owners were gettingrich in new facilities in Jacksonville, Fla., Charlotte, N.C. and St. Louis.
Engineers said 64-year-old Cleveland Stadium was basically sound, butcement chunks were falling off and workers occasionally had to climb laddersto hammer out dangling sections. Its wooden pilings had petrified.
The drab, horseshoe-shaped facility was built for Olympic track and fieldand featured some of the worst spectator views in the NFL. The oval shapemeant the 50-yard-line seats, usually football’s most coveted, were thefarthest from the field. And its retrofitted sky boxes commandedbargain-basement rents.
Meanwhile, Cleveland was already committed to $650 million worth ofcommunity projects: Jacobs Field, the Indians’ new baseball park; Gund Arena,home of the NBA’s Cavaliers; and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame had opened torave reviews. The Great Lakes Science Center was going up next to the Browns’stadium.
Modell had supported the competing attractions, but they were now sappingcorporate support from his team, as droves of sky-box customers dropped theirleases and rented more modern suites at the new arena and ballpark. A quarterof his sky boxes were vacant. And the move of the Indians from ClevelandStadium cost his stadium-operating company $700,000 a year in rent.
Modell says he repeatedly was promised, over six years, that his stadiumwould be next. But by the time attention turned to the Browns late last year,the political and economic climate for sports stadiums had grown bleak.Construction of the Gateway baseball and basketball complex had run way overbudget and some unpaid contractors had filed for bankruptcy. Cuyahoga Countyhad to cover interest payments when revenues fell way short of projections.
Politicians began linking Browns stadium funding with measures to pay off theother projects, a tar pit the football team didn’t dare enter.
A mess for Modell. And a bonanza for Moag.
No deal in Cleveland
Bickering among Cleveland’s political leaders had Modell thinking thefederal budget would be balanced before he got the money for ClevelandStadium. Months had passed since Mayor Michael R. White promised, at abreakfast meeting at the Cleveland Ritz-Carlton, that he would assemble a dealin 120 days.
Instead, the mayor found the cupboards bare.
Ohio, home to five major-league and several minor-league and collegesports teams, said it would invest only 15 percent in facilities for any team.
The county, in addition to the problems at Gateway, was reeling from itsown Orange County-like bond crisis stemming from a $115 million loss by apooled investment fund. County commissioners were publicly saying the Brownscouldn’t count on them for any money.
City Council members, seeing broken-down police cruisers and a schoolsystem in state receivership, said the same. Suggested new taxes on parking,retail sales, cigarettes and alcohol all drew fiery responses in a city thatwas taxing those things as heavily as any city in the country.
By June, the job officially slipped behind schedule. Modell had asked forthe work to be done by the fall of 1999, the season immediately after hislease expired. Ribbon-cutting now looked to be set for the year 2000 at theearliest, at which time Modell would be 75. Having undergone bypass surgerytwice, he was considering shifting the team, his only significant asset, to atrust for estate planning.
At the same time, NFL economics were inflicting as much damage to thestadium as winter storms blowing in off Lake Erie. The emergence of playerfree agency and nuances of the league’s revenue-sharing policy stronglyfavored clubs that made money from their stadiums. Modell said he was losingmillions and needed bank loans to sign players.
Against this backdrop, Modell wrote a letter to White on June 5.
” . . . the Browns organization cannot condone, support or participate ina continuation of the divisive and disruptive dialogue concerning stadiumrenovation. Nor are we willing to endure a campaign associated with either aninitiative or recall referendum on the November ballot,” the letter said.
Modell said the team had to turn its attention to the 1995 season andasked for a moratorium on the debate. He stopped talking about it. Whiteresponded the next day, writing: " . . . this administration cannot, in goodconscience, let our efforts to assure that there is a viable home for theBrowns in Cleveland wane.”
Shopping for a city
On this point the two bitterly disagree: The mayor says Modellsucker-punched Cleveland by asking for a moratorium but then talking toMaryland. White says he was working in good faith to meet the team’s needs,despite never getting a clear enunciation of just what the team needed.
Clearly the team was not playing by the tried-and-true rules of sports:Make public threats to win public concessions. Quite the opposite, for yearsModell had said he would not move the team while he owned it. And he said hewould not talk to other cities during the moratorium. This lulled communityleaders into a false sense of complacency.
Modell says he had resisted issuing over-reaching demands or threats,knowing the community’s limited resources and fearing a public trashing. Nowhe was discovering that the support White claimed he had for funding from cityand county leaders was illusionary. And the mayor, by going public with thedebate, broke the moratorium, he says.
As his advisers continued to urge him to leave, Modell agreed to considerthe options.
He looked at several: Toronto, San Antonio, Memphis, Tenn., and LosAngeles. It was quickly determined that only Baltimore had funding in placefor a first-class stadium that could transform the franchise’s fortunesovernight. But they would have to move fast: Maryland’s deadline was only afew months away and a line was forming.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Arizona Cardinals were keenly interested.They were the latest in a series of teams that had flirted with the city sincethe Cincinnati Bengals and Los Angeles Raiders approached Moag’s predecessorwithin hours of the league’s 1993 expansion votes. A few months later,investors led by local attorney Robert Schulman bid on the New EnglandPatriots. During the next year, Orioles owner Peter Angelos made someexpensive, but ultimately failed, runs for the Buccaneers and the then-LosAngeles Rams and Raiders.
Modell dispatched Lerner to Baltimore for the first of two clandestinemeetings on his plane July 28.
July: Browns get serious
As Lerner jetted into Baltimore-Washington International Airport in hiscorporate plane, Moag drove up in his Land Rover, crammed with beach suppliesfor a family vacation. The two talked aboard the plane for about an hour and ahalf. Lerner said there was a problem in the stadium talks in Cleveland, buthe didn’t know what Modell was going to do. Moag explained that the governorneeded to get the state budget together by December for the annual GeneralAssembly session that begins in mid-January. There was pressure building fromlegislators to deauthorize the bonds, possibly to help the Redskins build inthe state.
Lerner didn’t need any tutoring on the Baltimore offer. Marylandstrategists, in a last-minute panic during the 1993 expansion competition, hadrecruited him as a prospective owner. They had hoped his connection withModell, a member of the NFL’s expansion committee, would help. It didn’t.Modell, along with most of the other owners, went along with NFL commissionerPaul Tagliabue’s Sun Belt strategy and approved franchises for Charlotte andJacksonville. Lerner wasn’t surprised; he doubted Baltimore’s chances allalong, but joined out of deference to Governor Schaefer.
Now Moag told Lerner that the deal was essentially unchanged from 1993,including two sweeteners the businessman had negotiated then: the right topick the concessionaire and 50 percent of the proceeds of non-NFL events heldat the stadium.
At the end of their airport meeting, Moag and Lerner exchanged a long listof fax and phone numbers in New York, Cleveland, Baltimore and Delaware, whereMoag was headed.
Moag was so encouraged that he stopped by the State House unannounced onhis way to the beach to brief the governor. Both men were surprised at thenews. Just two weeks before, Moag and the governor had met secretly inWashington with Tagliabue, a session that left them with serious doubts aboutgetting a team.
Now Moag was telling the governor he thought the Browns were serious. Moagbelieved that Lerner, a no-nonsense ex-Marine, was not given to frivolousconversations on airport tarmacs. Glendening joked: “Don’t worry about thisover your vacation. It’s only your career.”
Two days later, on July 30, Moag and Glendening sent -- with the Browns’knowledge -- a letter to Tagliabue, requesting the league pass a legallybinding resolution promising Baltimore an expansion or relocated franchise.Moag thought this could buy time, keeping funding in place, in case talks withthe Browns or another team went into overtime.
Meanwhile, Moag stayed in contact with other teams. The Buccaneers hadbeen purchased the year before by Malcolm Glazer, one of two prospectiveexpansion-team owners that Maryland strategists had snubbed in favor ofLerner. Now Tampa was having a hard time raising the cash for a new stadiumand Glazer’s sons came to see Moag and seemed eager to make a deal. Alsovisiting was Cardinals owner Bill Bidwill, who narrowly passed over Baltimorein 1987 when he moved his franchise from St. Louis to Arizona. He believedArizona had not made good on its promises.
Faced with an unexpected bounty, Moag and Glendening picked a team with astrong tradition and respected owner. While visiting Tampa and Phoenix, Moagplaced calls to Browns intermediaries, subtly giving notice that the teamwasn’t alone in its affection for Baltimore.
Moag and Lerner met again Sept. 6, at a reception in the rustic warehouseadjacent to Camden Yards. While the attention of the sports world was rivetedon Cal Ripken’s breaking Lou Gehrig’s consecutive-games record that night,Moag was consumed with another sport and another achievement. He pulled Lerneraside and reminded him of the approaching deadline. Moag suggested there wasno reason a deal could not be signed and hidden in a vault until the seasonended.
The next day, Lerner called to say Modell was ready to talk. Theyscheduled a meeting for Sept. 18, in Lerner’s New York office.
The team owner was in a quandary. He had lost hope for a deal in Clevelandbut didn’t want to announce he was leaving because it would kill ticket salesfor the remaining home games. But he also saw the best deal in sports slippingaway. The Buccaneers and Cardinals were close, and Modell, as he later put it,wanted to “head them off at the pass.”
He had many questions. Had Baltimore’s enthusiasm for football waned sinceexpansion? Was there a place to play while the stadium was being built? Whatabout practice facilities? And could a team in Baltimore co-exist with theRedskins just 40 miles away?
Moag was wary but hopeful. A few days before the meeting, he stopped intoa Georgetown tobacco shop to get a gift for Lerner, whose affection for finecigars was undiminished despite a bout with throat cancer. Moag paid $870 forthe best they had: two boxes of Davidoff “Double R,” a mild Dominican cigar.If a $200 million stadium wasn’t enough to lure a team, maybe a good smoke would.
September: down to details
Moag arrived at Lerner’s Manhattan office, a posh complex that takes upthe entire top floor of a building, at 11 a.m. With him was Bruce Hoffman, anengineer and the Stadium Authority executive director, and Alison Asti, theauthority’s general counsel. The office, with its dark wood paneling and richart, could pass for a country estate except for the breathtaking view ofCentral Park, bathed in late-summer sunshine.
Modell was there with his son, David, the 34-year-old vice president andheir apparent of the team, Bailey and Lerner. At first, the two groupscongregated in a lounge area off to one side of Lerner’s desk, making smalltalk.
Moag presented a box of Davidoffs to Lerner. The billionaire -- whoprefers the stronger-tasting Hoyo de Monterrey Excaliburs from SpanishHonduras -- was appreciative but handed them off to David Modell, also a cigaraficionado. Moag said that wasn’t necessary, he had a box for him, too.
Modell told the Marylanders that he knew they had been used by other teamsthat feigned interest in Baltimore just to get tax dollars out of their localofficials. Modell assured them that he was “at the end of his rope” inCleveland. They agreed to hold the meeting in the strictest of confidence.
Moag related again how perishable the stadium money was: He was underpressure from other teams, and the governor wanted a deal by the end of theyear.
The group retired to a round table on the other side of the office, wherethey ate from a catered buffet of salmon, roast beef and chicken. Theconversation included issues as specific as stadium cleaning -- somethingModell, as the operator of Cleveland Stadium, knew intimately. Moag regaledthe group with his insights as a Washington insider, predicting that ColinPowell would not run for president and joking that Powell’s interest in thejob was dreamed up by his book publicist.
In this genteel setting, the outline of a deal emerged with surprisingswiftness. Modell prided himself on treating others fairly in negotiations.And Lerner didn’t like to get hung up on trivial details. He sometimes toldthe story of a real estate deal his father had lost in a dispute over whowould keep a case of toilet paper.
Moag said that Maryland’s 1993 expansion offer was already rich, and thathe wasn’t planning any enhancements. He opposed, for example, selling theright to name the stadium to a corporate sponsor, a practice growing commonelsewhere. He also expressed reluctance about charging season-ticket buyers anupfront fee called permanent seat licenses that were in vogue in the NFL.
Modell knew that he could raise tens of millions of dollars through PSLsto help pay for the move. But he agreed he wouldn’t make the deal contingenton selling a minimum number of seat licenses, tickets or luxury suites,inducements that drew the Rams to St. Louis and the Oilers to Nashville, Tenn.Modell said he was confident Baltimore would embrace the NFL and his team.
As they flew back to Maryland, Moag and his entourage thought they wereclose to scoring the Browns. The faxes were soon humming. Team and StadiumAuthority officials held clandestine meetings in Washington, negotiating thedetails. Hand-drawn maps of the Inner Harbor and stadium site were exchanged.Issues as intricate as the ratio of men’s to women’s toilets were settled.
At one point Moag, remembering Lerner’s toilet paper story, faxed him aproposed lease clause promising the team a bonus: a case of toilet paper.
The two sides agreed to a 30-year lease, with the team playing the firsttwo years at Memorial Stadium. The team could sell $75 million in permanentseat licenses, but could use the proceeds only to build a new trainingcomplex, cover moving expenses, and pay off the team’s leases in Cleveland andin the suburb where it trained. (Modell later would use the fee arrangement ascollateral for a $50 million line of credit from Bramble’s bank, FirstNational, to cover legal and relocation costs.)
The state would pay $200 million to build an open-air stadium and maintaina $600,000 fund for continuing improvements. Rent would consist of theoperating costs of the stadium, about $4 million a year, and a 10 percentticket tax, which would raise another $3 million. The team would keep allmoney made on concessions, tickets and advertising during games, as well ashalf the money from non-NFL events held there.
Meanwhile, officials in Cleveland were growing anxious by Modell’s refusalto negotiate. A few weeks after the New York meeting, Modell received a letterfrom Ohio Gov. George V. Voinovich, a friend since his days in Cleveland’sCity Hall. The governor begged for at least some advance notice.
“Many of us suspect you have decided there is no way we can possibly meetthe opportunity you have in some other part of the country. . . . It would beterrible, Art, if at the end of the season you were to sneak out of town likethe Baltimore Colts did,” Voinovich wrote.
A5 In fact, the Browns were sneaking into Baltimore.
October: closing the deal
The final details were agreed to in early October and Moag called thegovernor, who, in a reaction that mirrored his state’s initial disbelief,said, “Are you sure?” Moag said yes. A contract signing was scheduled forFriday, Oct. 27, at BWI.
A few items of business remained.
The Browns’ board of directors took the matter up secretly on Friday, Oct.20. Because he owns 51 percent of the team, Modell controls the board. Theonly member who is not a friend or relative is Bob Gries, a venture capitalistand adventurer whose grandfather was a founding investor in the Browns. Gries,who was estranged from Modell, controlled a block of family-owned stockconstituting 43 percent of the team.
Gries said it was the first he had heard of a move, and he didn’t like it.But he knew he couldn’t do anything besides slow it down. The meeting wasadjourned and papers were drawn up that transferred all of Gries’ stock toModell, who will pay Gries over a period of 10 years beginning in 1997 out ofteam revenues. The deal, which is canceled if the team doesn’t move, alsoraises Lerner’s share in the team to 9 percent.
The board met again the following Tuesday, without Gries, and therelocation was approved unanimously. The next day, Modell dropped Voinovich aresponse to his letter. He neither confirmed nor denied the governor’ssuspicions. But he made clear his view of Cleveland: " . . . no resolutionthat even remotely approximates the benefits afforded the local teams atGateway and our NFL competitors is in sight.”
In Baltimore, Moag was getting worried that the league might pass theresolution he requested guaranteeing the city a team. That could give the NFLgreater authority in deciding what team would -- or wouldn’t -- move toBaltimore. A committee had agreed to put it to a vote of all the NFL owners ata Nov. 7 meeting. Now that he had a team, Moag made plans to get the votedelayed.
At BWI: flying in, signing off
Moag arrived first at BWI for the Oct. 27 rendezvous. The private planeterminal was a secluded building around the back of the airport that 11 yearsago had been the setting of another famous moment in NFL history: a combativeColts owner Bob Irsay, with Mayor Schaefer at his side, insisting to reportersthat he was not leaving Baltimore.
In two months, the Colts were gone. Now, 11 years later, the void wasabout to be filled. In Moag’s briefcase were two stapled copies of thecontract, one for him and one for Modell.
Glendening arrived next, just after 8 a.m., followed almost immediately bythe plane from Cleveland. The governor was the first to board, greeting Lernerwith a handshake. Lerner escorted the group to the back of the plane, to apair of leather-upholstered couches facing each other.
The atmosphere was sober, and Modell spoke first. He talked about how thedecision had weighed on him. He had lived in Cleveland since 1961, raised twosons there and did his duty on the boards of some of its most prestigiouscolleges and corporations. He was president of the Cleveland Clinic, a famousmedical center that saved his life twice.
It was his first meeting with Glendening and the two talked for about 45minutes. Both men’s wives are active in hospices, and it was agreed that theyshould get together. Modell talked about how he wanted the team and itsplayers to become active in the community.
David Modell, who didn’t want to interrupt the men by walking betweenthem, stood in the plane’s galley and kept everyone’s coffee cups full. At onepoint he spilled milk on the governor’s shoes. Glendening, about to score amajor political coup, took it in good humor.
For Moag, it was a remarkable scene. The roster of teams that had sniffedat Baltimore over the years was long and not very distinguished: the Saints,Cardinals, Patriots, Rams, Raiders, Buccaneers, Oilers, Bengals. Most werepoorly run teams without much support at home. Here was one of the league’shistoric franchises actually moving here.
Finally, Modell turned to Moag, sitting next to him, and said, “You havesome papers for me to sign?”
Despite efforts to keep the deal secret, it leaked out almost immediatelyand, by mutual agreement, was formally announced Nov. 6. The date wasimportant: The next day, the league was going to consider the Baltimoreresolution (it was tabled) and Cleveland Mayor White’s extension of a sin taxfor stadium work was up for referendum (it was approved).
Modell and Lerner anticipated disappointment in Cleveland but have beensurprised by the ferocity of the reaction: bomb threats at the stadium,pickets outside Modell’s winter home in Florida, and death threats. Bills havebeen introduced in Congress to thwart franchise relocations. Cleveland went tocourt to enforce the final three years of the team’s lease at ClevelandStadium, and the NFL is scheduled to vote Jan. 17 on the Browns’ relocation.The outcome of both could be challenged in court.
In Baltimore, there has been hand-wringing, but also a deluge of ticketrequests.
Modell, who now travels with a bodyguard, insists he is not turning back.He won’t even be there today when the Browns play what is likely to be theirlast game in Cleveland.
Go beyond the scoreboard
Get the latest on L.A.'s teams in the daily Sports Report newsletter.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.