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august 03, 2012 • 04:44 AM • last update 05:17 AM

Cleveland Browns sold to Tennessee truck-stop magnate

In this undated file photo provided by Pilot Travel Centers LLC, Chief Executive Officer Jimmy Haslam is shown. Cleveland Browns owner Randy Lerner has reached a deal to sell the team to Haslam III, according to multiple reports on Thursday, Aug. 2, 2012. ESPN and the NFL Network said Thursday that an agreement on the team sale had been reached. ESPN said the sale price was for more than $1 billion.
Foto: AP in English
 

Ownership change can make the folks in Cleveland nervous, especially when it involves the Browns.

Fear not, inhabitants of the Dawg Pound. New owner Jimmy Haslam III won't be pulling an Art Modell.

Randy Lerner has reached a deal to sell the club to Tennessee truck-stop magnate Haslam — a minority stockholder in the rival Steelers, of all teams. Haslam promised Lerner the franchise won't be relocated.

"He had done a lot of work on the Browns and the city of Cleveland," Lerner said, "and first and foremost gave me his personal assurance the team would remain in Cleveland."

Lerner will sell 70 percent of the Browns to Haslam now, with the other 30 percent reverting to him four years after the closing date, a person with knowledge of the sale told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because details have not officially been announced.

"This is a very exciting time for my family and me," Haslam said through the team.

"To own such a storied franchise as the Cleveland Browns, with its rich tradition and history, is a dream come true. We are committed to keeping the team in Cleveland and seeing it get back to the elite of the NFL — something all Browns fans want and deserve."

Haslam planned to hold a news conference at Browns headquarters Friday.

"We plan to bring relentless dedication and hard work to every aspect of this organization, and we look forward to getting to know this team and community as quickly as possible," Haslam said. "Our family is committed to becoming an integral part of the Cleveland community."

While the papers have been signed, the NFL still must approve the sale. Getting the nod from 24 of the 32 teams is required, and no date has been set for a vote because the sale has not been presented to the league yet. The person with knowledge of the sale said approval is expected by the end of September.

ESPN reported the sale price was more than $1 billion. For comparison, the Miami Dolphins sold at a value of more than $1 billion in 2009.

The Browns were valued at $977 million last year by Forbes magazine, 20th in the NFL.

Asked if he was surprised by the deal, team President Mike Holmgren said: "On one hand, the surprising part was the time of the year. But in this business, I gave up being surprised a long time ago."

Lerner, whose family has owned the franchise since it returned to the NFL in 1999, first announced he was in negotiations to sell the club last week. The late Al Lerner, Randy's father, purchased the franchise from the NFL in 1998 for $530 million after the original Browns moved to Baltimore in 1996 and became the Ravens. The elder Lerner died in 2002.

Randy Lerner also is the owner of Aston Villa, a club in the English Premier League.

The expansion Browns entered the NFL in 1999 and have made the playoffs just once, a 2002 first-round loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. They've had only two winning records in 13 seasons and are 68-140 since they returned.

Even with a string of failures on the field, the value of the Browns — like other NFL franchises — keeps increasing, boosted by broadcast income. The league agreed in December to nine-year contracts with CBS, Fox and NBC that run through the 2022 season and will boost revenue from the $1.93 billion last season to $3.1 billion by 2022. The NFL reached an eight-year extension with ESPN last year through the 2021 season that increases the rights fee from $1.1 billion to $1.9 billion annually.

Haslam has been a minority investor in the Steelers since 2008, and is the president and CEO of Pilot Flying J, the largest operator of travel centers and travel plazas in North America. He is the older brother of Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam.

According to a 2010 profile on Steelers.com, Haslam has been a Dallas Cowboys fan and then an Indianapolis Colts fan. But with the Pittsburgh investment, Haslam said he had become "1,000 percent a Steelers fan."

The Haslam brothers are supporters of the University of Tennessee, where their father Jim Haslam played tackle on the 1951 national championship football team under Gen. Robert R. Neyland, who built the Volunteers into a football powerhouse.

The elder Haslam founded the Pilot Corp. in 1958 with a single gas station in Gate City, Va. He credits sons Bill and Jimmy with expanding the chain from mostly gas stations and convenience stores to a "travel center" concept of truck stops featuring branded fast food service.

As for Haslam possibly moving the franchise, Holmgren emphatically added, "The Cleveland Browns aren't going anywhere."

But the current staff might be if the Browns don't do better than the 4-12 record of 2011, Pat Shurmur's first season as coach. New owners usually bring in their own management team, although Shurmur has impressed many people around the league.

"I have no fear about any of that because I trust my coaches, I trust the players and I've watched the work they've done based on the conversation of this last week," Shurmur said Thursday. "I think we're moving full steam ahead. That doesn't bother me one bit at this point at this point. My concern is getting this team ready to play and our players understand that message and they are doing a good job."

Holmgren would not address his future with the Browns.

"Honestly, my focus is to have guys here concentrating on football, making it business as usual," he said. "The what ifs and hypotheticals, I have to stay away from."

Haslam would be the sixth majority owner of the Browns: team founder Mickey McBride (1945-1953), David Jones (1953-1961), Art Modell (1961-1995), Al Lerner (1998-2002), and Randy Lerner (2002-present). An NFL trust also oversaw the inactive franchise from 1996-1998.

Cleveland last won the NFL championship in 1964, beating Johnny Unitas and the then-Baltimore Colts 27-0.

The Browns have never been to the Super Bowl.

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