National Football League owners today voted to allow Art Modell to move his football team from Cleveland to Baltimore for the 1996 season, affirming a settlement reached by league and Cleveland negotiators Thursday night that guarantees that city an existing or expansion franchise by 1999.

The vote was 25 to 2, with three abstentions, to return the NFL to Baltimore for the first time since the Colts abandoned the city for Indianapolis in March 1984. Baltimore has been trying to lure a team since, and Modell has been promised a new rent-free $200 million stadium in the Camden Yards area in time for the 1998 season, although some Maryland legislators have balked at the state-supported deal.

Cleveland will retain the name Browns, the team's colors, logo and records, and has a financial commitment from the league to help in the construction of a stadium by 1999 for an expansion or existing team.

"This is a historic agreement in professional sports that solves an emotional, difficult problem for the NFL, Cleveland and Baltimore," NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue said moments after he and Cleveland Mayor Michael R. White signed the document. "To the fans of the Browns I can say very simply you can count on us, the Browns will be there by 1999. . . . The NFL is committed to this. There are no ifs, ands or buts."

Modell appeared at a news conference shortly after Tagliabue and White left the stage, making his first public appearance since he announced his decision on Nov. 6 to leave Cleveland.

"It's been a very, very tough experience for a lot of people," said Modell, who now travels with bodyguards after receiving death threats. "Now the final whistle has blown in this ballgame. I'm leaving Cleveland with the greatest memories. I'm looking forward to a new life and a new era in Baltimore. . . . The deal {between Cleveland and the NFL} would be attractive for any team, even me. But that boat has sailed."

Modell referred to his team today as the "Baltimore Somethings" and said he will launch a contest to select a name. Until the new stadium is built, the team will play at Memorial Stadium, where construction soon will begin to add 15,000 seats, pushing capacity to about 65,000.

The 70-year-old owner said he was about to undertake an "overhaul" of his organization "to give ourselves a new look" but was noncommittal on the fate of Coach Bill Belichick, whose job is in jeopardy. Asked if former Miami Dolphins coach Don Shula would play a role, Modell said, "As of now, no. But I'll see him again. Right now, he's unwinding. But I intend to see him in Miami. Anybody would like Don Shula to join anything with football. He and Vince Lombardi are two of the greatest minds in the history of the game."

Asked when the moving vans would show up at the Browns' Berea, Ohio, headquarters to pack for the trip to Baltimore, Modell cracked, "As soon as they come back from Los Angeles." That was a reference to the Seattle Seahawks announcing their move last week to Los Angeles, in defiance of a league resolution passed by a 23 to 0 margin last year giving the NFL the right to choose the team for that city.

Seahawks owner Ken Behring made a brief report to the members on his situation today at a meeting that also included an agreement on an extension of the league's collective bargaining agreement with its players' union through the year 2002. Seattle/Los Angeles is certain to replace Cleveland/Baltimore as the league's most contentious issue when owners convene March 10 in Florida for their annual meeting.

Today's two no votes on the move to Baltimore came from Buffalo Bills owner Ralph Wilson and Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney, both of whom have publicly decried the rash of recent franchise shifts and were particularly incensed about the recently announced move of the Seahawks to Los Angeles next year. The St. Louis Rams, Arizona Cardinals and Oakland Raiders abstained in a vote taken during a three-hour session here this morning; all three teams recently have relocated. The moves of the Rams and Raiders left Los Angeles without an NFL team.

The interim agreement between Cleveland and the league -- which includes a provision for an end zone bleacher "Dawg Pound" for Cleveland's more rabid fans in a new open-air 72,000-seat stadium -- must be approved by the Cleveland city council, but White already has described that process as a formality.

It took some creative negotiations to hash out the final details of the deal with Cleveland, including a provision that calls for Modell to provide a $29 million relocation fee to the league. A similar fee is being contested by the Rams after their move from Los Angeles to St. Louis last year.

"I have offered it to {the league} and it's part of the bill," Modell said, adding that he is required to pay $20 million now, and the remainder over the next 10 years. John Moag, chairman of the Maryland Stadium Authority, said he thought Modell would pay the money "but I'm sure he will be following the St. Louis case with close interest."

Under Modell's agreement with Maryland, proceeds from the $80 million to be raised by sales of personal seat licenses -- a fee that guarantees fans the right to purchase season tickets -- can be used to pay all costs of the team's move, including the $29 million relocation fee. PSL money also will pay for a $15 million training facility, cover the $12 million in damages Modell must pay the city of Cleveland and the expense of moving team personnel and severance pay to those who decided not to leave Ohio. If any PSL money remains, it would go back to the state. But Moag said again today he does not expect much to be left once all of Modell's expenses are paid.

Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D), who has taken considerable political heat for making the expensive deal to bring a team to Baltimore, was given to subdued rhetoric after the NFL vote yesterday. But he didn't appear to have any mixed feelings.

The governor pronounced himself happy for both Cleveland and Maryland. "It looks like everyone has done well," Glendening told reporters in Annapolis. He said the vote will lead to a long-sought goal: "We will now have an NFL team."

For Cleveland, the deal allowed the city to keep both the name Browns and the team colors (orange, brown and white). Another boon: the NFL will provide between $28 million and $48 million toward stadium construction in Cleveland. That money, which Tagliabue said would be borrowed from a bank, must be repaid to the NFL by the new ownership of the Cleveland franchise.

The league's unprecedented stadium contribution was one of the final stumbling blocks to the league's settlement with Cleveland, as was Modell's initial reluctance to pay any of the $12 million in damages to the city.

According to Fred Nance, Cleveland's lead attorney in negotiations, the city came here on Tuesday with the possibility of keeping the Browns, with Baltimore being forced to wait for an expansion or existing franchise.

"We looked at Cleveland keeping the current team as option number one. We looked at expansion or relocation for us as option number two," Nance said. "We negotiated on that to the last day. We were still looking at option one yesterday {Thursday}. But we didn't come to closure on it and then we never came back to it as we negotiated.

"On Tuesday, this whole thing was a 50-50 proposition. We were told that Modell was reluctant to pay any damages, and that was a deal breaker. We felt the city had to be made whole. On Wednesday we got his first offer, which was to pay out-of-pocket expenses of $2.25 million."

Nance said Cleveland believed it had leverage from the day it filed suit to keep Modell from breaking the three remaining years on his stadium lease. "Through the negotiations, both sides treated it as a forgone conclusion Cleveland could keep the team for three years with that injunction," he said. "But the likelihood of bringing another NFL team to Cleveland thereafter {the three years} was going to be remote to nonexistent."

Staff writer Charles Babington contributed to this report from Annapolis.

CAPTION: Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, left, Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening, center, greet Art Modell at BWI Airport upon return from NFL meetings.

CAPTION: Art Modell will move his team to Baltimore to begin play next season, first at Memorial Stadium and later at a proposed $200 million facility. (Photo ran in an earlier edition)