And why should they? Lerner's $530 million purchase of the new Browns on Tuesday restored football in Cleveland and made them a whole lot richer.
Despite helping Art Modell move the old Browns to Baltimore, Lerner was chosen to own Cleveland's expansion team when the NFL unanimously accepted his $530 million offer.
The league gets $54 million for stadium costs, making the bottom line $476 million _ still the most expensive sports team in U.S. history.
Lerner, 65, teamed with former San Francisco 49ers president Carmen Policy, now gets to write a very large check as the final step in his comeback.
"I haven't done it yet and have no idea how it's going to feel," said Lerner, the richest of four bidders with a net worth of $2.5 billion. "If you ask me how it is to pay for a pair of shoes, that I know. When you're getting up to these kind of numbers, for everyone it's a unique experience."
Lerner, a 5 percent partner in the old Browns, let Modell use his private jet to cut the deal that left Cleveland without a team after the 1995 season. He owns 90 percent of the expansion franchise, with Policy owning 10 percent and running football operations.
It will be a true test for Policy, credited with building the 49ers' dynasty under owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr.
"Given some luck ... we're going to be able to adequately meet the challenge," Policy said. "We're going to be under the gun, but I think we're going to perform."
The Browns, who haven't won an NFL championship since 1964, easily became the highest-priced U.S. sports team, surpassing the $350 million Rupert Murdoch paid for the Los Angeles Dodgers earlier this year. The price also surpassed the previous record of $140 million for an expansion team, set by Carolina and Jacksonville in 1993.
"It's an outstanding deal, both for the owner and the city of Cleveland," Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said.
At a news conference in Cleveland late Tuesday night, Lerner said he intends to keep the brown, orange and white colors of the Browns uniforms and, if possible, the same name for the stadium _ Cleveland Municipal Stadium. He also said he had no regrets about the price.
"It was a free market, and you had serious bidders with capacity, and that's what it took to buy it," said Lerner, flanked by Policy and former Browns quarterback Bernie Kosar, an adviser in the Lerner-Policy bid.
Owners met for about five hours and took four ballots before Lerner and Policy eliminated Larry and Charles Dolan, who were teamed with Hall of Fame coach Don Shula and comedian Bill Cosby.
Larry Dolan, a Cleveland-area lawyer issued a statement congratulating Lerner. His brother Charles, chairman of Cablevision Systems Corp., said he hadn't spoken with Shula but did get a call from Cosby.
"He told me a couple of jokes," Dolan said. "He said, 'There's nothing you can do about it.' He was great. Of course, we're all disappointed."
Lerner, whose first job selling furniture paid him $75 a week, made millions as chairman of MBNA Credit Corp. He becomes the fourth owner in Browns history, joining Arthur "Mickey" McBride, David Jones and Modell, who bought the team for $4 million in 1961.
Commissioner Paul Tagliabue said a deadlock over Lerner and the Dolans was broken by Modell, who motioned for a unanimous vote. Modell said he did it "for the good of the league. (Lerner) had the votes."
The league's seven-member expansion committee met for about 90 minutes before all the owners met and considered offers from Lerner, the Dolans and New York real estate magnate Howard Milstein. They eliminated Clevelander Bart Wolstein, who was teamed with Hall of Famer Jim Brown but wanted the league to own part of the team temporarily.
The committee unanimously endorsed the Lerner-Policy team, and the final vote among the 30 owners was unanimous with one abstention _ Oakland's Al Davis.
"Al Lerner deserved it in every respect," Jones said. "Both his interest in Cleveland and how he conducted himself through this process. It's a shame that they both couldn't have had Cleveland."
Before Modell's motion, it was 21-7 in favor of Lerner with abstentions from Oakland and St. Louis.
Voting for the Dolans were Baltimore, the Jets, Cincinnati, Buffalo, Tampa Bay, Chicago and the Giants. All subsequently switched, with Davis abstaining _ as is his custom.
"Right now I'm thinking of Mr. Shula," Davis said. "I just thought he deserved tremendous consideration."
Dolan's bid was $500 million with the stadium money factored in, and Milstein's was "substantially less," Tagliabue said.
With Lerner's help, Modell moved the Browns to Baltimore and renamed the team the Ravens because he believed he couldn't work out a deal for a new stadium. Lerner's substantial bank account and his insistence that he was only a bystander in the move worked in his favor.
"He had to show he was committed to being a member of the Cleveland Browns," Jones said. "He did that."
Tagliabue said Modell spoke in favor of the Dolan group, but not against Lerner.
"It was a very respectful, thoughtful, positive decision process," Tagliabue said.
After Modell's departure in 1996 left some of football's most loyal fans without a team, the city of Cleveland struck a deal with the NFL that guaranteed a replacement team by 1999.
The NFL owners decided to make it an expansion team in February, and gave the Browns a favorable stocking plan in July. The Browns get 30 veteran players from other teams and 14 extra draft picks including the first overall next year.
The new Browns begin play next season in a $280 million, football-only stadium on the same spot where old Cleveland Stadium stood. The new owner gets millions in revenue from luxury boxes and club seats, plus the sale of 41,000 personal seat licenses.
Tagliabue said the Browns will get a full share from the league's $17.6 billion TV contract right from their first season. Carolina and Jacksonville did not.
Milstein's elimination meant that former players Calvin Hill and Paul Warfield lost in their bid to give the expansion team black representation in the ownership group.
Hill, father of NBA star Grant Hill, failed in his fourth bid to become
part-owner of a sports franchise. He would have run business operations
for Milstein, while Warfield would have run football operations.