Art Modell's 38-year run at the top of American sports has apparently entered its final years, as the Ravens team owner has agreed to relinquish his franchise to a new investor as soon as 2004.

The venerable sportsman, once a confidant of commissioners and presidents, struck a tentative agreement Friday to sell 49 percent of the Ravens to Anne Arundel County businessman Stephen J. Bisciotti. The $275 million price includes an option enabling Bisciotti to buy the rest of the team's shares in four years for an additional $325 million, according to sources familiar with the deal who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

That gives the team a value of about $600 million.

Bisciotti, who declined to reveal details of the transaction, said yesterday he intends to invoke his option to become the team's sole owner. The deal, which still must pass muster with the National Football League, gives Bisciotti the right to purchase the other 51 percent of the team anytime between 2004 and 2006, one source said.

If he doesn't exercise the option, he would remain a minority investor and the Modells would remain in control -- an unlikely outcome given the price Bisciotti has paid.

Modell declined to comment yesterday, but issued a written statement saying: "My family could not be happier with this turn of events. Steve has built an incredibly successful business from the ground up. I am impressed with his acumen and energy, and I believe he can help the Ravens achieve a championship level both on and off the field."

In an interview yesterday with The Sun, Bisciotti, 39, said he had never before bid on a sports franchise but was moved to act when the Ravens became available. A childhood Colts fan, he came of age in the era of Bert Jones and the resurgent Colts. Bisciotti said he viewed the purchase as an "average financial deal" but an irresistible opportunity to help his adopted home state.

He began contacting intermediaries, including former Maryland Stadium Authority head John Moag, about three weeks ago. He visited the team's Owings Mills complex 10 days ago and met with Modell and his son, team president David Modell. Bisciotti said he "clicked" from the start with the elder Modell, whom he grew up following on the sports pages but had never met.

"When I was a kid, there were two team owners who were held in esteem: Wellington Mara and Art Modell, the old guard," Bisciotti said.

Mara is part-owner of the New York Giants. Modell, part of late NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle's inner circle, chaired the league's influential television committee when football became the networks' most valuable commodity and the sport surpassed baseball as America's most popular.

Although separated by a generation, Bisciotti and Modell share some characteristics: Both are self-made multimillionaires from middle-class backgrounds. And both procured their franchises at young ages. Modell paid $3.93 million for the team, then known as the Cleveland Browns, in 1961, when he was 35.

Bisciotti could be as young as 43 when he assumes control, making him the second-youngest of the league's current owners. The Washington Redskins' Daniel Snyder is the youngest, at 35.

For the next four years, Bisciotti will have a say over only the biggest franchise decisions -- leaving day-to-day control in the hands of the Modells. Bisciotti said he would use this time to learn about the sport and team.

One source said a clause in the contract provides for payments to David Modell if he is discharged within the first two years of Bisciotti's majority ownership.

"Art deserves a championship team, and if this allows him to leave the NFL with the dignity he deserves for all he has done for the NFL I would love nothing more than for Art Modell to have a Super Bowl trophy before he retires," Bisciotti said.

A shocking move

It was the desire to win the NFL's championship, as well as to pass the team on to his two sons, that prompted Modell to agree in 1995 to move the team to Baltimore. The shocking decision brought a firestorm of protest upon Modell, who was burned in effigy in Cleveland and vilified nationwide. Before the move, he had been a candidate for the Pro Football Hall of Fame but has not been since.

He blamed Cleveland leaders for failing to provide him a stadium on a par with that the city built for the American League Indians and National Basketball Association Cavaliers. And Modell, 74, said he wanted to follow in the footsteps of his late friend, Pittsburgh Steelers owner Art Rooney, who left his franchise to his son, Dan.

The transaction brings to an end a tumultuous period for the franchise. Modell said he had to move the team to preserve its economic viability, but the relocation brought on additional costs, and debt, when he had to buy out minority investors and settle lawsuits brought by Ohio officials.