Some of the richest, shrewdest, most cutthroat competitors in America are gearing up for one of the biggest financial battles in sports history. The Browns surely will be the highest-priced expansion team ever, possibly even the most expensive team of any kind. But how much?
That is the $1 billion question.
The combatants include a billionaire (Al Lerner), a New Yorker who wishes he'd been born in Ohio (Howard Milstein), and a self-made, toymaking mogul who is trying to get Michael Jordan to join his team (Thomas Murdough). Proven winners like Don Shula and Carmen Policy who must stand before the 30 NFL owners and prove they deserve readmittance to one of the elite business clubs in the world.
"The NFL is very, very good at saying, 'How bad do you want it?' " sports marketing analyst Rick Burton said. "It's like going to an auction and this is a priceless gem. I think they'll swing this bid thing around until they've got everybody in a froth. This is capitalism, baby."
The known ownership groups made confidential, preliminary bids to the NFL this week. Though it's not clear how the process will work, some reports have laid it out like a poker game of the highest order: The league will collect the highest bid and repeatedly ask the stragglers to top it until everyone has folded but the new owner.
The bill for antacids, calculator batteries and ring-around-the-collar remover alone would cause even the most ardent member of the Dawg Pound to spill his beer.
"This is why players ask for as much money as they can get," said Burton, director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon. "It's why the networks pay as much as they do. If people will pay it, bring it on."
NFL owners, who will share the Browns' franchise fee, are scheduled to begin hearing presentations from bidders on Aug. 19. Contestants will get access to a wealth of financial information. NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue predicts an owner will be chosen by mid-September, less than a year before the team's first game in a new stadium now expected to cost $280 million.
"We've got the entire free world focused on August of 1999," said Lerner, a minority partner in the old Browns team that moved to Baltimore after the 1995 season.
The clear underdogs _ Murdough, the toy company executive, and Bart Wolstein, a Cleveland real estate developer _ cringed when owners like Dallas' Jerry Jones and Tampa Bay's Malcolm Glazer predicted last month that the Browns could command $700 million to $1 billion.
The record for an expansion team in any sport is $140 million, for Carolina and Jacksonville in 1993. The Minnesota Vikings sold last month for $250 million.
The Los Angeles Dodgers, sold to Rupert Murdoch for $350 million in March, are most expensive sports team in history. But that deal included Dodger Stadium, 300 acres surrounding the ballpark and training complexes in Vero Beach, Fla., and the Dominican Republic.
The Browns deal has none of that, but the team is much more than 45 guys in orange helmets. The new stadium will churn out millions in revenue from a sweetheart lease, luxury boxes and club seats, plus the 41,000 personal seat licenses already sold. Money from the league's new $17.6 billion TV contract kicks in after one year.
The financial picture and the rabid nature of Cleveland fans have some analysts predicting that the price for the Browns, who haven't won an NFL championship since 1964, will reverberate through sports like a wakeup call for owners thinking about peddling their teams.
The initial prediction of $350 million now is dismissed as chump change. But $1 billion?
The men bidding for the team are united in their belief _ or hope _ that Jones and Glazer do not represent the majority of owners in their billion-dollar prediction. Milstein, who has met with about a dozen owners, said those concerned only with price are outnumbered 3-1.
"Price is not going to be the determining factor," Milstein said.
A parade of celebrities have aligned with potential owners who hope name recognition helps their bids in a way that money cannot.
Shula and comedian Bill Cosby each would own 5 percent of the Browns if brothers Larry and Charles Dolan get the team. Hall of Fame running back Jim Brown is backing Wolstein, and Policy joined Lerner. Murdough is courting Jordan, who will not decide until the NBA lockout is over.
But star power may not matter.
"A lot of the owners would take Bozo the Clown if he was the highest bidder," Detroit Lions vice chairman William Ford Jr. said.
It would be a mistake to dismiss the insight of Jones, a leading member of the expansion committee and an influential owners. Some scoffed when Jones predicted the NFL's TV package would be worth $8 billion. The league more than doubled it.
"He has the greatest sense of where this football league fits into the scheme of the American economy," Burton said.
All bidders who have gone public agreed to interviews except Richard Jacobs, the owner of the Cleveland Indians baseball team. None would divulge the price that would cause them to fold.
"I find it difficult to imagine someone who would be willing to pay more than me," said Milstein, who owns 45 percent of the NHL's New York Islanders.
Policy's late entry created an interesting subplot. He resigned as 49ers president after a lengthy feud with owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr., then joined Lerner, whose net worth is estimated at $2.5 billion.
Owners were reportedly seething that Policy severed ties with DeBartolo, and other bidders feared that the Lerner-Policy ticket had jacked the price of the team into the stratosphere.
"There is no question in my mind that our group becoming involved in this bidding will garner more money for the NFL than it would've received had we not gotten involved," Policy said. "And do you see anybody dropping out? I don't see anybody dropping out."