Sunday, December 26, 1999

Modell makes Brown look like great owner




BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        BALTIMORE — Art Modell is out of debt. His family will soon be out of football. The chain of events that traumatized Cleveland and brought shame upon Baltimore have taken a last ironic twist.

        In order to meet his many obligations, Modell has been obliged to sell his interest in the Baltimore Ravens, previously known as the Cleveland Browns. Maryland businessman Stephen Bisciotti is buying 49 percent of the team for $275 million, with an option to acquire the rest in 2004 — an option he intends to exercise.

        In a prepared statement, Modell said, “My family could not be happier with this turn of events.” In a subsequent interview with the Washington Post, the 74-year-old owner said he did not want to sell and held out the faint hope Bisciotti would change his mind about exercising his option.

        Barring that unlikely event, Modell will have succeeded in paying his bills while failing to preserve his dynasty. He will have failed in his goal to preserve his National Football League franchise for his sons, able only to postpone the inevitable sale at an incalculable cost to his reputation. The Modells will walk away wealthy when the time comes, but they are forever tarred as incompetent carpetbaggers.

        Only an incompetent owner could have lost money in the NFL during the last 40 years. Only a carpetbagger would have deserted the sport's most devoted fans for a fast buck in another town. Only a sap would want someone like that running his favorite football team.

        It almost makes you glad Mike Brown owns the Cincinnati Bengals.

        While it is not fashionable to celebrate Bengals ownership these days, it is sometimes useful to consider some of the alternatives. Next time you feel like venting your spleen in Brown's direction, consider for a second how much worse things might have been with Modell.

Squandered vs. saves
        Elsewhere in these pages are detailed the events that enabled the Brown family to gain control of the franchise from Paul Brown's original 10 percent stake. While the Modells squandered their money, the Browns saved. They built up their ownership stake by turning over their dividends to cash-poor partners.

        If the Bengals suffered as a result — if too much money went to the stockholders and not enough was reinvested in the product — at least the product stayed put.

        When Baltimore beckoned to the Bengals, Mike Brown was able to use it as leverage to get a new stadium. When Baltimore beckoned to the Browns, Art Modell had nearly no choice but to leave.

        Even after the move to Maryland, Modell was unable to balance his books. The team's debt was restructured in 1997 in a $185 million loan package that set an NFL record and needed approval of the other owners. Earlier this year, the team was technically in default because of a failure to maintain a debt-operating profit ratio required by lenders.

        Modell returned to his fellow owners for help, and they agreed to back a one-year loan as he sought a minority investor. Predictably, the landscape was not littered with people prepared to pay hundreds of millions of dollars for a piece of a team they would not control. Inevitably, Art Modell was forced to sell out.

To pocket $350 million
        Modell's people say he could not have made such a lucrative deal in Cleveland; that selling the Browns in 1995 would have provided Modell enough money to pay his creditors and his taxes, but would have left him little in the way of profit. If Bisciotti exercises his option, the Modells stand to pocket another $325 million.

        Whether all that money can be worth all the aggravation is a question only Art Modell can answer. Once a candidate for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, a key figure in the game's geometric growth through television, he is now a pariah in a city where he lived for 30 years.

        If you think Mike Brown is unpopular in Cincinnati, try praising Art Modell in Cuyahoga County. Be prepared to duck.

        Tim Sullivan welcomes your email at tsullivan@enquirer.com.

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