Updated 7/27/2012 at 7:01 p.m.
CLEVELAND (92.3 The Fan) – Randy Lerner’s days as the owner of the Cleveland Browns are coming to an end.
The potential sale of the Browns has been rumored for nearly 2 months and for the first time since the rumors began, Lerner confirmed in a statement Friday morning that he is in discussions to sell the team to Tennessee business magnate Jimmy Haslam III.
“In connection with current rumors and press inquiries, I can report that I’ve been approached by Mr. Jimmy Haslam, who is interested in making an investment in the Cleveland Browns,” Lerner said.
“We are currently in negotiations and both sides have agreed to keep that dialogue and its details private. Given that any transaction would require League approval, care has been taken so that this process will not be disruptive to the organization, in particular the football team, as it prepares for the upcoming season.
“We will share further details or make an announcement if it becomes necessary.”
Lerner would not retain an interest in the team should the sale go through with Haslam’s group according to a source and the price tag is expected to top the $1 billion mark.
The Jacksonville Jaguars sold for $760 million last year but the franchise has had attendance problems and doesn’t have nearly as rabid or passionate fan base that the Browns possess.
Lerner is also seeking a guarantee that the team will not be moved as a condition of the sale.
Shortly after news of the potential sale broke, the city of Cleveland issued a statement through Mayor Frank Jackson’s office outlining the terms of the lease and the expectation that the franchise will honor it.
“The 30-year lease to the Cleveland Browns commenced in 1999 and continues to 2029,” Jackson’s office said in a statement.
“This lease, like the prior Municipal Stadium lease for which the City of Cleveland successfully obtained an injunction in 1995, requires the Browns to play all their regular season and playoff home games in the Cleveland Browns Stadium. If this requirement is not honored the city has legal options that could be pursued if necessary.”
Haslam, 58, is a minority investor in the Pittsburgh Steelers and the president and CEO of Pilot Flying J travel centers and truck stops. The company operates approximately 235 travel centers across 35 states.
The company was founded by his father, James Haslam Jr., in 1958 and is currently headquartered in Knoxville, Tennessee.
Haslam’s brother, Bill Haslam, is the current governor of Tennessee.
Howard Eskin of NBC 10 in Philadelphia reports that former Eagles president Joe Banner is part of Haslam’s group trying to buy the Browns.
Eskin first reported in May that the Browns could be for sale and at the time, Banner was pursuing ownership groups for the Buffalo Bills.
On June 14, president Mike Holmgren denied Eskin’s report and the subsequent rumors that followed.
“No, the Browns are not for sale,” Holmgren said. “I talk to Randy (Lerner) all the time, and I assume he’d tell me. We have a very open, honest relationship. No, there’s no truth to that.”
There is truth to it now.
Earlier this spring, following a 4-12 season, Lerner expressed his frustration and stressed to Holmgren and the front office the need to get the team turned around quickly.
Since returning in 1999, the Browns have had only two winning seasons in 13 years. They were 9-7 in 2002, 10-6 in 2007 and have won just 9 games in 2 years with Holmgren as president.
The Browns retooled their offense this season by drafting running back Trent Richardson, quarterback Brandon Weeden and then adding receiver Josh Gordon in the supplemental draft on July 16.
The Browns are a worth $977 million according to Forbes which is ranked 20th among the NFL’s 32 teams.
Much like the Lerner family, Haslam has several philanthropic interests.
Haslam was a longtime member of the University of Tennessee Board of Trustees and in 2006 donated $32.5 million to the school, the largest gift ever at the time.
He also established the Haslam Family Foundation for charitable giving. Bill Haslam and Jimmy Haslam each gave $30.5 million to the foundation between 2001 and 2010. The brothers’ biggest annual donation was $10 million each in 2008 and 2009, according to IRS reports.
Over the same 10-year period, the family foundation gave $19 million, with the University of Tennessee, the UT Foundation and United Way receiving the most.
Lerner’s late father, Al Lerner, won the expansion bidding and paid $530 million for the franchise in 1998.
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