Owners hear Brown

3-30-04, 12:05 a.m

BY GEOFF HOBSON

PALM BEACH, Fla. _ Art Modell turned the page one last time here Monday and he turned out to be on the same one as Mike Brown.

"We come out of the same experience," said Brown, the Bengals president who is no longer hearing an echo in the league meetings when he talks about the NFL's need for more revenue sharing. "We are on the same page on a lot of issues."

It is a page the NFL owners are suddenly realizing they hope they don't borrow from their baseball brethren. It's a page they know Mike Brown has been reading to them for a long time.

On a gray, drizzly day hard on the Florida coast, the owners who helped made the NFL before Janet Jackson and cable TV lined up for another showdown with the league's young lions. The battleground this week is the extension of the NFL Trust, a sharing arrangement involving trademarks and team logos and sponsorships that generates $4 million of annual income to each team.

The new accord, called the "master agreement," is expected to pass with some tweaks for both sides by a three-quarters vote before it expires Wednesday.

Some big-market teams feel they aren't getting their fair share of such money. Some teams like the Cowboys, Redskins, and Raiders reportedly want to keep all that money and make more by delving into other team's markets. So many feel the vote is a harbinger of bigger struggles to come involving revenues that are currently not shared, such as luxury- box tickets, advertising, sponsorships, concession, parking, and club seats, and is going to be a flashpoint that could lure the sport into the financial disparities that have plagued baseball.

Other teams, such as the old guard Bengals, Giants, Steelers, and Bills see those unshared revenues jacking a salary cap to $80.5 million, which all teams must pay even though they didn't generate the revenue.

"If we take the cap cost for that and not the income, we're in trouble," Brown repeated patiently Monday. "If this tend continues, it breaks our back. We're not alone. The guys in the catbird seat have to realize this if they're going to have a league and have somebody else to play."

Brown said indications are this week's agreement on the merchandise sharing has elements of both groups, but that it's one which the Bengals can live for now. For the first time Monday, many owners are publicly calling for more revenue sharing, not less. It's a concept Brown has been talking about behind closed doors for much of the Stadium Era.

"I think (Brown) articulated things a lot of people thought or suspected, and didn't really own up to it the way he did," said Giants president Wellington Mara, the NFL's senior statesman and diplomat when compared to his opposite number with baseball's Yankees.

Modell, the outgoing owner of the Ravens, was honored by his peers in an emotional morning meeting, his last as five decades of running a NFL team came to an end. Modell literally gave birth to the Bengals 41 years ago when he fired Paul Brown as coach of the Cleveland Browns, so Paul Brown's son would have found it hypocritical if he was one of the owners that stood up Monday to say a few words of homage. But Mike Brown did have a few quiet words with Modell Sunday and again Monday, congratulating him on his run and wishing him health.

When Modell met the media Monday to spin some stories and to finally bare his soul in admitting he moved Paul Brown's Browns to Baltimore nine years ago because his family would go bankrupt, he also made a plea for revenue sharing.

"It's imperative this league continue to share revenue," Modell said. "You only have to look at baseball, basketball and hockey. You only have to look at the sports pages to see what is going on."

About 82 percent of NFL revenues are shared, which is TV, tickets, and merchandise. But the unshared revenues have shot up about 20 percent in the 10 years since new stadiums began dotting the landscape. The Bengals have enjoyed a jump in revenue in the four years at Paul Brown Stadium, but their estimated annual pull of $140 million ranks just 25th in the league.

"We just don't have the revenue available to us that they do elsewhere," Brown said. "That's all right, but only all right to a point. There comes a point we break down, we can't stay up. . . It reflects the market size, primarily."

Modell and Brown both found themselves waxing nostalgic about the old style of owners. Modell recalled when NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle came to him in the early '60s and asked his thoughts about television revenue sharing. Modell told him it would work, only if Dan Reeves in Los Angeles, George Halas in Chicago and Jack Mara (Wellington's brother) in New York agreed.

Modell convinced the trio by agreeing to sacrifice the Browns' powerful independent network that had made Paul Brown's team a household name in the '50s and throw it into the pool. A network Modell admitted he had "inherited," from the Paul Brown days.

Asked if there are any more statesmen left, Modell nodded to a hallway and said, "There are good, quality people inside that room. (But) owner ship attitudes have changed. Maybe not always for the better. They have changed. The new owners are so saddled with debt from buying their franchises, they need all the revenue they can get. Revenue sharing led to a series of developments (a collective bargaining agreement, a salary cap) that made this league what it is. A great league."

Brown isn't going to call himself a statesman, but Dan Rooney, the Steelers chairman, said Brown has stood up "for the lower teams, and it's just not them and us.

"(Revenue sharing is) the basis for our whole league," Rooney said. "I think it puts you in a baseball situation. It's crazy. We're the best league in sports. The best model and structure. Why screw it up? We had G-3 (the plan for other teams to help fund stadiums even in big markets) and that's more money than we're talking about here. The league has always been a partnership. What made this league strong is every game is important. Every game is televised. If we start pulling back on that, it's going to hurt other teams."

Rooney admitted there are always owners that want to go off on their own, so "you outvote them." Ralph Wilson, the octogenarian who owns the Bills, says owners like the Cowboys' Jerry Jones are only going to devalue his franchise by selling his merchandise in other cities.

"How many Cowboy hats is he going to sell in Buffalo?" Wilson asked. "Not too many. . .A large market isn't going to be able to sell that much merchandise."

Jim Irsay, the owner of the Colts, is saddled with a bad stadium lease, a dome, and just 53,000 seats. He says he's last in the league in revenue and 70 percent of his revenue goes to player salaries. The top revenue producers put only about 38 percent toward their salaries. More than 50 percent of the Bengals'' revenue goes to salaries. The gap in revenue from No. 1 to No. 32 is about $100 million. The baseball parallel is too prevalent to be ignored these days.

"Somewhere, someone's ox is going to get gored," Mara said. "Someone is going to have to give up something they don't want to have to give up because the diversity in revenue is getting greater and greater every year.

"We made a great mistake when we first started talking about luxury suites," Mara sid. "The thing was at the time no one knew exactly how to handle the charges for luxury suites. Not knowing, we just let it alone."

As Wilson gently ribbed Jones, so did Mara kid the Redskins' Daniel Snyder. The Daniel has no apprentice as the NFL's king of spending. And, why not? He has about 300 luxury boxes compared to the Bengals' 110.

Asked if Snyder is the root off all the problems, Mara said, "No, he just participates in them."

Like Modell and Mara, Brown senses the change in the owners' room.

"The one thing that has changed is the attitude," Brown said. "There was a point in this league in the past there was a willingness to act as a league. One for all and all for one. Now it's, 'You're lookout is your problem.' It's different."

It's different, but at least Brown has not sat by and watched the league change.

"It's been a long haul," said Brown in his effort to get owners to understand. "Yes, (the owners) are hearing it. I just try to look after our interest. It's our team's interest and the health of our franchise and our market."

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