The Buffalo Bills have one less site for relocation should they not extend their lease with Erie County beyond the 1998 season.
Cleveland, often mentioned as a possible new home for the Bills, officially learned Monday that it will have an expansion team on the field in 1999. The city lost its pro football franchise to Baltimore following the 1995 season.
During their annual meetings, NFL owners, who had already promised to put a franchise back in Cleveland, unanimously approved a plan to restore the Browns as the league's 31st team rather than moving an existing club. Most of them apparently were not discouraged by a number of unresolved issues, including ownership of the team.
The NFL plans to play with 31 teams for an indefinite period, but its goal is to have 32 as soon as possible. Still in the running for expansion or existing clubs are Los Angeles, Houston, and Toronto.
There was speculation that Bills owner Ralph C. Wilson Jr., if not against the idea of expansion to Cleveland, preferred to put it off until the Bills sell enough luxury suites and club seats to ensure that their lease will be extended five years beyond the '98 season.
But after Monday's announcement, Wilson said he had no problem with Cleveland getting an expansion franchise.
"My focus is to make Buffalo successful," Wilson said.
Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson, who recently toured the Browns' new stadium with NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue, was one of the owners who pushed the hardest for expansion to Cleveland during meetings Monday.
"It was partly what we saw in Cleveland, that the stadium is becoming a reality," Tagliabue said. "Partly, it was our conversations with the mayor and how the fans feel and their desire for an expansion team."
Now the NFL will begin accepting applications for an owner of the Browns. It will also establish a franchise fee, expected to be around $350 million. Newly hired league vice president George Young, retired general manager of the New York Giants, is in charge of putting together the Browns' front office.
The Browns will return to the AFC Central. Their first exhibition game will be against Dallas in the Hall of Fame game in Canton, Ohio, next year.
The Browns' first regular-season game is supposed to be played on Aug. 21, 1999, in a new stadium being built on the same site as old Cleveland Stadium, which was torn down after Art Modell's team became the Baltimore Ravens.
It is expected that the $247-million facility, which seats 72,000, will be finished in time for the Browns' first game.
The NFL also announced it hired Joe Mack as player personnel director of the Browns. Mack held that position with the Washington Redskins from 1989-94 and helped build the Panthers expansion team as assistant general manager in 1994.