Battle For The Cleveland Browns

Local groups go to war over who'll own the team

Sports-crazed Clevelanders were heartbroken when the Browns were unceremoniously uprooted in 1996, moved, and reborn as the Baltimore Ravens. The city's corporate elite launched a campaign for a new stadium--which the National Football League had demanded before approving a new Browns franchise. Local companies snapped up 94 luxury boxes at $125,000 apiece, and the NFL gave the go-ahead: On Aug. 21, 1999, the new Cleveland Browns are scheduled for their first kickoff.

But who will own the team? As of July 8, there were five competing investor groups. The latest bid is from Cleveland Indians owner and shopping-mall mogul Richard E. Jacobs. The competition for the team, which will cost $300 million to $500 million, is pitting executive against executive.

Big out-of-town money has entered the picture, and some local loyalists--who would like to own the team themselves--are stewing. The group that rankles some Clevelanders most is headed by New York real estate entrepreneur Howard Milstein. That bid is being masterminded by Patrick F. McCartan, a managing director of Cleveland-based Jones, Day, Revais & Pogue, a powerhouse law firm that counts Milstein among its clients.

Rivals say the Milstein team is trying to stack the deck by collecting support--but relatively little money--from Cleveland's corporate celebrities. That includes Joseph T. Gorman, chairman and CEO of TRW, who is also head of Cleveland Tomorrow, an influential civic group that was behind the city's recent renaissance campaign.

"EMOTIONALLY COMMITTED." "Milstein's got deep pockets, but what does he know about the Cleveland Browns?" says Thomas G. Murdough Jr., president of Step2 Co., a local manufacturer of home, garden, and children's products, who is heading a competing investor group. "I have lived here for 30 years. I've been a fan. I am emotionally committed to the Browns, and I have the money, too."

The other big out-of-towner is Charles F. Dolan, the head of Cablevision Systems Corp. in Woodbury, N.Y. Dolan, along with his brother Lawrence J. Dolan, a Chardon (Ohio) lawyer, has organized a group of star investors such as comedian Bill Cosby and football legend Don Shula.

The next play comes on July 28, when NFL owners meet to review the bids. A final decision will be made by mid-September, and the winner will pay the franchise fee to the other owners.

Whoever winds up with the Browns could make out handsomely in this sports-hungry town. Witness Jacobs' success with the Indians: On June 8, he completed the first initial public offering of a ball club--raising $60 million, yet keeping control of the franchise he bought for $35 million back in 1986.

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