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UPDATE: Pilot Flying J's Haslam Buys Cleveland Browns

Deal puts travel center chain leader in rival TA's backyard

CLEVELAND -- Cleveland Browns owner Randy Lerner has reached a deal to sell the football team to James "Jimmy" Haslam III, president and CEO of Knoxville, Tenn.-based travel center network Pilot Flying J Inc., a person with knowledge of the sale told the Associated Press.

Lerner will sell 70% of the Browns to Haslam now, with the other 30% reverting to him four years after the closing date, the person said on condition of anonymity because the sale has not officially been announced.

Haslam is expected to be introduced as the new owner at a news conference on Friday.

While the papers have been signed, the NFL still must approve the sale. Approval from 24 of the 32 teams is required, and no date has been set for a vote because the sale has not been presented to the league yet. The person said approval is expected by the end of September.

ESPN reported the sale price was more than $1 billion.

The Browns were valued at $977 million last year by Forbes magazine, 20th in the NFL.

Haslam has been a minority investor in the Pittsburgh Steelers and in a 2010 profile told the team's Steelers.com website that he had been a Dallas Cowboys and then an Indianapolis Colts fan. But with the Pittsburgh investment, Haslam said he had become "1,000% a Steelers fan." The Steelers are the Browns' chief rival.

(Click here to read a 2010 profile of Haslam on Steelers.com. See Related Content below for previous CSP Daily News coverage of the Browns deal. And click here for previous coverage of Pilot Flying J.)

But there is another rivalry involved, reported The Knoxville News Sentinel. The headquarters of one of Pilot Flying J's biggest competitors, TravelCenters of America (TA), is in Westlake, Ohio, only about 15 miles from Browns Stadium, said the report.

When Pilot in 2009 and 2010 sought government approval to acquire Ogden, Utah-based Flying J's travel center business, TA, challenged the deal in a letter to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), calling Pilot an "already-too-large monopolist."

Haslam alleged that TA "was going to do everything they can to keep [the deal] from happening." The merger was eventually approved, although Pilot had to sell 26 of its travel centers to a third company.

A TA spokesperson declined to comment to the News Sentinel about Haslam's purchase of the Browns.

Raymond James analyst Ben Brownlow said the travel center industry went through a very difficult time in 2007 and 2008, and that after volumes declined there was intense competition to capture the business that remained. "But the industry in general and the environment is starting to improve," he told the newspaper. "So I think the competition isn't quite as intense as it was back in '07, '08."

TravelCenters of America has 240 locations in 41 states and Canada operating under the TA and Petro Stopping Centers brands.

Pilot Flying J has more than 600 retail locations in 47 states and eight Canadian provinces.

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