Step 2 owner ready to play ball with NFL in bid for Browns ownership

By Diane Smith Record-Courier staff writer Published:

STREETSBORO _ As a passionate Browns fan and season ticket holder until the team left for Baltimore, Thomas Murdough has always had an interest in Cleveland football.

So although Murdough, founder and owner of Streetsboro's Step 2 toy manufacturing company, wants to be one of the local investors teamed up with former Browns quarterback Bernie Kosar to buy the Cleveland Browns franchise coming in 1999, he wants to prove their proposal is anything but child's play.

"We're committed to do right by the community by bringing back the Browns as a championship organization," he said. "Nothing less than that is going to be satisfactory."

The NFL's owners voted unanimously Monday to make the Browns an expansion franchise. The team will play its first game in 1999, and an owner is expected to be selected by this summer.

Murdough has lived in the area since 1969, and has been an avid Browns fan for many years, including the days when Kosar was Cleveland's star quarterback and the 1995 move of the team to Baltimore, where it is now known as the Ravens.

"I've experienced the same ups and downs as the rest of us," Murdough said. "I feel very fortunate to be in a position to participate in this project. It's a way for us to give back to the community that gave so much to us."

The league is expected to begin reviewing potential bidders for the franchise next week.

Murdough founded Little Tikes Co. in 1969 and sold it to Rubbermaid Inc. in 1984. He founded Step 2, which makes toys and lawn and garden items, in 1991.

He said he and Kosar are committed to making the investment team composed completely of local investors _ "people who understand how important it is to give back to the community."

It is unclear how many investors will be involved. Although previously published reports have stated the number of investors are limited to 10, Murdough said he believes the number is closer to 25 or 30, and is waiting for a definitive answer from the NFL.

The league has been reluctant to talk to any ownership candidates until after its annual ownership meetings, which are taking place this week.

The price of the franchise has not been set, but estimates have put the price at $350 million or more. Murdough said the amount his group would be willing to pay depends on "a variety of factors." He pointed out that the last expansion franchise sold for $205 million and if a higher price is set for the franchise in Cleveland, the price will have to be justified.

"Any of us would look at it as businessmen," he said. "We're encouraged by (NFL Commissioner) Paul Tagliabue's statements that it's going to be a fair price."

Other potential ownership candidates could include Cleveland Indians owner Dick Jacobs, developer and former Cleveland Force owner Bart Wolstein and Alfred Lerner, a former minority owner of the Browns who sold his share to Art Modell in 1997. Wolstein has said he will withdraw his name if Lerner makes his interest in the Browns official.

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