Two years ago fans of football's Cleveland Browns cut up their MBNA credit cards to protest the team's move to Baltimore. MBNA Corp. chairman Alfred Lerner owned 5% of the Browns and was seen as a villain who had helped to relocate the team.

Today, Mr. Lerner is the leading candidate to own the new Cleveland Browns, a National Football League expansion franchise.

Cleveland Mayor Michael R. White and former Browns quarterback Bernie Kosar have endorse Mr. Lerner's bid. One reason is the stellar reputation of his business partner in the proposed deal, former San Francisco 49ers president Carmen A. Policy.

The National Football League's 30 owners are expected to approve an owner for the Browns at the start of next month and announce the decision just after Labor Day. Seven groups are competing for the franchise, which some say could go for as much as $1 billion.

Mr. Lerner, who lives in a Cleveland suburb and is reported to be worth $2.5 billion, is not the only banker vying for the team. New York real estate executive Howard P. Milstein, co-chairman of Emigrant Savings Bank of New York, has assembled a group of Cleveland-area investors-including National City Corp. chairman David A. Daberko-that is also bidding.

Mr. Milstein, owner of the National Hockey League's New York Islanders, is considered a longer shot to win the Browns.

Mr. Lerner, who announced his intention to bid last month, is now distancing himself from Art Modell, the owner of the old Cleveland Browns. Mr. Modell drew the ire of Cleveland's football fanatics when he moved the franchise to Baltimore at the end of the 1995 season. "I had as much to do with the decision to move the Cleveland Browns as you did," Mr. Lerner said at a July press conference. "I owned less than 5%. What happened happened."

Mr. Lerner introduced Mr. Modell to business associates in Baltimore- MBNA was a spinoff of Maryland National Bank in that city-and lent him his corporate plane to negotiate with Maryland officials. But now some people in Cleveland say it is time to forgive and forget.

"The mayor said he believed Al Lerner was standing by his friend," said Nancy Lesic, a spokeswoman for Mayor White. "There clearly was a connection to Art Modell. ... (Mr. Lerner) was very forthcoming about what his role was."

It is unclear what influence Mayor White's endorsement would have on the NFL owners who heard presentations by bidders last week in Atlanta. But in addition to his partnership with Mr. Policy, factors in Mr. Lerner's favor include his friendship with NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue and a marketing affiliation between the NFL and MBNA America Bank of Wilmington, Del., which issues affinity cards on behalf of the teams.

Mr. Lerner, who operates businesses in several cities, lives in the Cleveland suburb of Shaker Heights. An active member of Cleveland's social and charity scene, he is president of the Cleveland Clinic Foundation and a trustee of Case Western Reserve University.

Other bidders for the Browns include cable television executive Charles Dolan and brother Larry; real estate developer Bert Wolstein; toy executive Thomas Murdaugh; Cleveland Indians owner Richard Jacobs; and Boston Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs. Celebrities including Bill Cosby and Hall of Fame running back Jim Brown have also jumped into the fray.

Robert N. Baird, an associate professor of economics at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, estimated the successful bidder will pay about $400 million for the team. The successful buyer has to win the NFL's support, which requires a lot of work with little guarantee of a financial return.

"A lot of individuals want to own a team for the glory and prestige," Mr. Baird said. "It's not financial motivation."

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