In 1974 Modell had to borrow $10 million to build luxury boxes and a modern scoreboard in his cavernous stadium. That was in the days of 20% interest rates, and the loan, says Modell, sent the Browns into a downward financial spiral. Over the years the team has continually borrowed money to pay off loans or to meet its payroll as player salaries have escalated—even though the club has been grossing $60 million a year.
In March the Browns agreed to a $17 million deal with free-agent wideout Andre Rison, but before they could sign him, Modell had to personally guarantee a $5 million loan to pay Rison's signing bonus. For the stadium alone, sources say, Modell has had to come up with $65 million for assorted expenses and refurbishments over the last 21 years. The Browns have paid the city of Cleveland an average rent of nearly $450,000 a year for the stadium, and the team receives no revenue from parking and other concessions. Most NFL teams get a fat cut of those revenues. Modell was convinced that he could never earn the revenue in Cleveland that he needs to compete with wealthy teams like the Dallas Cowboys and the Miami Dolphins.
Still, Modell is the majority owner of a franchise valued at approximately $160 million, and his net worth is reportedly $75 million—certainly more than that of your average Dawg Pound denizen, even if it is less than that of some of his fellow owners.
As of Monday, Tagliabue had not discussed the Browns' move with Modell, who had been one of the commissioner's most trusted allies. Part of the agreement that Modell signed with the Maryland Stadium Authority states that he will join in a lawsuit against the city of Cleveland or the league if either one seeks to halt the move. The NFL's suing Art Modell would be like Ward Cleaver's suing the Beaver.
Yet Modell and Adams are not the only restless owners. As many as eight of the NFL's 30 teams are plotting moves to new cities or new stadiums. To understand why, it is necessary to understand recent NFL economics, particularly the impact Dallas owner Jerry Jones has had on the way every pro football team does business.
When the NFL and the players' union agreed to a six-year salary cap beginning in 1993, the league thought it had found the perfect solution to skyrocketing labor costs. Each team would spend about 63% of the teams' average gross revenue each year on the players. But while the average gross revenue in 1994 was about $62 million (meaning each team could spend, including benefits and pensions, about $39 million for players), there was a glaring inequity: The Cowboys, who grossed the most ($101 million) that year, and the Cincinnati Bengals, who grossed the least ($53 million), could spend the same amount on players. Then Jones (who on Monday sued the NFL for $750 million, claiming that it is illegally restraining his right to freely market his team) took his windfall—plus even more money from private sponsorship deals that he signed this year—and spent $40.5 million on signing bonuses for players in 1995. Because the '93 bargaining agreement allows teams to prorate signing bonuses equally over the life of contracts, only $14.6 million of that huge signing-bonus pool counts against the Dallas salary cap in '95. At week's end Dallas was 8-1 and is favored to win its third Super Bowl in four years.
"What has happened," says Pittsburgh Steeler owner Dan Rooney, "is that Jones has taken NFL revenue to a new level. He's on a different plane with what he can do with players, because he has all the cash to give big signing bonuses. So now you have this frenzy of teams looking for better deals, because they're afraid they're going to get left at the post."
Says San Francisco 49er president Carmen Policy, "Art just couldn't keep up with the Joneses."
Few in the league can, which is why so many teams are looking to pack up for new territory. "Stadium deals have become important because economics in the NFL have changed," says Chicago Bear vice president Ted Phillips. "It used to be that what was important was market size. Now the determining factor between the haves and the have-nots isn't market size, it's stadium economics. That's why there are no teams in Los Angeles, and that's why this is happening with the Browns."
These are the franchises actively seeking better deals: