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Ladies and Gentlemen: The Baltimore Browns

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Like so many NFL transfers, stadium issues were the problem

Fans Browns

Cleveland Browns owner Art Modell loved the City of Cleveland. However, as the owner of one of the NFL’s pillar franchises, he committed several depravities against his beloved municipality.

For one, he antagonized pro football’s greatest running back of all time, Jim Brown, to which the eight-time NFL rushing leader decided to retire from the game while in his physical prime. And the dispute was over Brown needing a two-week hiatus from training camp while he finished filming his current movie “The Dirty Dozen” on location in London. Modell was going to fine him $100 a day for missing camp. This came on the heels of Brown being named NFL MVP award and captured his eighth rushing title in nine years.

Secondly, Modell fired one of pro football’s greatest coaches: Paul Brown. All Coach Brown did was capture seven championships and was named Coach of the Year four times. Coach Brown was an innovator and one of the league’s best coaches and mentors. While with the Browns he compiled 158 wins, 48 losses, eight ties with a .767 win percentage in a 17-year span. Cleveland’s 5-7-0 record in 1956 was Coach Brown’s only losing season.

Modell also fired another head coach who had brought the franchise back to respectability and prominence by the name of Marty Schottenheimer. All Schott did was win 45 games in five seasons including three straight years with 10 wins or better (12-4 in 1986), lose four straight years in the playoffs including two AFC Championship games, and win one Coach of the Year award. Of course, his crime was that he couldn’t get the Browns to the next level.

The biggest fiasco, however, proved to be the last dagger into the hearts of faithful Browns’ fans - Modell moved the club to the City of Baltimore. While he married Cleveland for love, Modell wed Baltimore for money.

Same Song – Different City: Stadium Issues

Not that a relocation of an NFL club is something new. Throughout the history of the league, there are dozens of franchises that have moved for one reason or another. The Los Angeles Rams have moved four times. The Oakland Raiders are about to ascend into their third locale. The Arizona Cardinals have had three different cities to call home. The Indianapolis Colts, Tennessee Titans, Detroit Lions, Kansas City Chiefs, Washington Redskins and Chicago Bears all began somewhere else. Plus, there were dozens more to add to this list that is now defunct franchises.

The problem Modell had with Cleveland revolved around the Browns’ existing venue – Cleveland Stadium. Built in 1930 to accommodate baseball’s Cleveland Indians and Olympic track and field events, when the Browns first moved there in 1946, it was spacious and would seat 81,000 for football. Plus, it was an instant upgrade from the 22,500-seat League Park that the Cleveland Rams had called home before they moved to Los Angeles.

But into the 1990s, just like everything else that is over 60 years old, Cleveland Stadium was simply ancient and outdated.

Plus, one other important aspect would come into play in the modern era of pro sports – luxury skyboxes.

At every NFL game, the visiting club receives a standard gate fee. And when a patron buys a jersey of their favorite player, a coffee mug or hat of their team, or any other item that has emblazoned their choice of team logo, that money is split equally amongst all 32 franchises. However, at a club’s home field, revenue from items such as parking, concessions, programs, in-stadium advertising, in-house promotions/activities and program advertising are all kept by the home club.

And more importantly, the money generated by luxury skyboxes. Under the NFL’s revenue sharing plan, luxury skyboxes are exempt from revenue allocation. Usually, skyboxes are scooped up by local and national corporations as a setting to treat clients, executives and employees.

The revenue generated from skyboxes are without a doubt the number one boom in the past 21 years for any sports team. The lease for one NFL season can run from $800,000 to $1 million a year. Some clubs, like the Dallas Cowboys, require multi-year agreements. Companies such as Suite Experience Group, allow fans to rent skyboxes for a single game. Currently, any Browns’ fan can rent a skybox suite at FirstEnergy Stadium for one game at a cost of between $10,000-$15,000 (depending on opponent). And if a team has, say, 64 skyboxes - that is certainly a huge chunk of change. Especially if they don’t have to apportion the proceeds to other NFL teams.

1948 program Browns vs. Los Angeles Dons

So, this money opportunity is huge and is not shared. And NFL owners most certainly want to cash in on this. They also want fancy new stadiums with modern conveniences and features. Cleveland Stadium had none of these. It was built in a day when men wore hats and women wore gloves every day, black people could not vote or eat in the same restaurants as other patrons, steak was 20 cents a pound, you could buy a new Plymouth car for $685 and Betty Boop was all the rage.

Modell wanted something better with the Browns’ stadium situation. The stadium had skyboxes built, but by means were they considered “luxury.” The City of Cleveland owned the stadium but Modell had signed a 25-year lease in 1965 to operate it.

He formed a company called Stadium Corp., which would handle all aspects of the stadium and tend to its two primary residents: the Browns and the Indians.

So, the Browns, owned by Modell, would pay rent to Stadium Corp., also owned by Modell. The Indians, however, would not receive the normal stadium revenue generated by games such as concessions and parking. This would be collected and owned by Stadium Corp., again owned by Modell. Basically, Modell was the Indians landlord.

For years, he tried to get the City to make modern and more fan-friendly renovations. The Indians eventually convinced the City of Cleveland plus the voters of Cuyahoga County to build a new ballpark (Jacobs Field) exclusively for them that opened in 1994. The NBA Cavaliers were also moved into a new arena (Quicken Loans Arena) along with the newly-built Rock and Roll Hall of Fame plus the Great Lakes Science Center. All of this totaled over $650 million. Modell felt it was his club’s turn and wasn’t asking for a new stadium, just an extensive facelift, and massive improvements and wanted the City to help with the costs.

When the Indians moved, most of the skybox customers rented their stadium’s luxury suites and dropped the ones they leased from Stadium Corp. Most customers felt that the cost for 81 home Indians games versus the eight home Browns’ games was the better buy. Before, these same customers had both team’s games installed into their purchase. Suddenly, they had to choose and bolted the ancient confines of Cleveland Stadium for the upscale and brand new Jacobs Field. Plus, the skybox rental fees remained the same with Stadium Corp. even though patrons no longer would receive the advantage of seeing the Indians play.

To make matters worse, pieces of concrete could be found around Cleveland Stadium that had fallen off certain spots plus the wooden structural pilings were beginning to petrify. The question arose: was the venue actually safe?

And to be fair, for six years Modell was promised that his stadium project would indeed be next.

Cleveland the Rock

The Browns were a cornerstone of the NFL going into the 1990s. Even though the NFL did not recognize nor accept any records or statistics from the All-America Football Conference from which the Browns sprang up, the club had captured eight championships since its inception in two leagues. From the first Super Bowl in 1965 and into the 1990s, it is true the Browns came close to playing in the big game, just never quite made the trip. And nobody suffered more for this than Art Modell.

The Jim Brown vs. the Giants’ Sam Huff annual saga gave pro football a much needed shot in the arm in an era when nobody cared one corn cob about the game. The Browns had stars, the invention of the facemask, stellar defenses and “The Toe.” In 1961, Modell purchased the Browns for $4 million, with only $250,000 coming from his own checkbook as he borrowed $2.7 million and gathered partners for the remainder; one of which was Rudy Schaefer of the Schaefer Beer Company.

In 1995, Modell wanted the City of Cleveland to do something and commit to the Browns by making an old stadium somehow look newer and exciting. At this point, he had become impatient after years of asking for help. He even had informal talks with NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue. And then Modell did the one thing that no true Browns’ fan can ever forgive him for: he promised he would never relocate the franchise.

Meanwhile, Cleveland Mayor Mike White pushed for improvements. He wanted to extend the city’s sin tax in order to produce enough funds for the renovations. With training camp set to begin in July, Modell decided to focus all of his attention on the season at hand and table the stadium issue. Browns’ fans assumed that is exactly what would be done.

It wasn’t.

At the October owner’s meeting, Modell told Tagliabue that he needed to talk to him about his stadium issues to which the commissioner informed him that his door was always open. That was the only inclination the league got about the Browns’ imminent relocation.

Baltimore Gains What They Once Lost

On November 3, 1995, news leaked that Modell had agreed to relocate the Browns to Baltimore.

Of course, Baltimore was once the home of another anchor of the NFL with the Colts who themselves moved in the dead of night in a historical snowstorm. The reason? They had stadium issues and could not get their city to do improvements. So, the Colts moved to the brand, spanking new Hoosier Dome in Indianapolis, Indiana. Another familiar tale just with a different cast of characters.

And, Baltimore missed the NFL badly. When the NFL announced in 1993 they would expand to two new cities in 1995, Baltimore’s bid had three ownership groups in place ready to christen the new “Baltimore Bombers.” A financial package with the state had produced $200 million for a new, rent-free stadium. Meanwhile, the following year writer Tom Clancy and Baltimore Orioles’ owner Peter Angelos spearheaded a group that attempted to purchase the Los Angeles Rams, but the Ram’s owners chose St. Louis as their new home instead. Next, the group approached the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ owners about selling but were refuted.

In 1995, the city missed out on the two new expansion teams eventually granted to Charlotte, North Carolina and Jacksonville, Florida. Undeterred, the City of Baltimore was going to get another NFL team somehow, some way, and no matter what the costs.

Their city council and state officials decided to offer and build the Browns a brand new spanking stadium complete with luxury skyboxes at a cost of $220 million. Did anyone wonder out loud that if they had decided that earlier perhaps the fabled Colts would still be playing in their city?

Did anyone in Cleveland ever wonder out loud the same thing about their club?

The announced move, even leaked, was like Cleveland’s version of Pearl Harbor. When the Raiders moved from Oakland to Los Angeles everyone knew that owner Al Davis was hated. Colts’ owner Jim Irsay wasn’t highly regarded either. But Modell? He was one of the NFL’s elite owners. A committee man. Leader. Statesman. Trusted. Legendary. Pillar.

On November 5, the 4-4-0 Browns lost their home game to the Oilers 37-10. The next day, Baltimore mayor Kurt Schmoke introduced Modell in a brisk morning assembly amidst a standing ovation.

Art Modell. Owner of the Baltimore Browns.

Announcement in Baltimore

Meanwhile, the Cleveland Browns lost six of their next seven games and finished 5-11-0 after a promising 3-1-0 start for head coach Bill Belichick, who would later get fired. Their final home game before moving to Baltimore was the only game Modell missed since he purchased the Browns.

The New Browns Are the Old Browns

And that was that. Baltimore had Cleveland’s NFL franchise.

Lou “The Toe” Groza

But Clevelanders were not content with the fact that they had lost their beloved Browns. They created a disturbance that the NFL had never encountered before with a city losing their team. The utter chaos that this fan base created made the NFL do something. On February 8, 1996, Tagliabue announced that Cleveland would get an NFL expansion team in 1999.

Plus, something that had never happened before in professional sports: the Browns would retain their team name, colors, heritage and history. Although all of the current Browns’ players, coaches, front office, scouts and such would go to Baltimore, none of the franchise’s past would follow. This set a precedent.

The history of QB Johnny Unitas had followed the club to Indianapolis, WR Fred Biletnikoff and QB Snake Stabler’s legacy moved to Los Angeles, while CB Roger Wehrli’s contributions went to Phoenix from St. Louis with the Rams, but the Browns’ history now stood as 1946-1995, 1999-present.

Baltimore would call themselves the “Ravens” and select purple, gold and black as their colors. Team name finalists were Mustangs, Americans, Railers and the most popular – Marauders. Ozzie Newsome was hired as the team’s director of football operations and would later become General Manager. Kicker Matt Stover eventually became the very last Browns’ player to retire from the game as a Raven. Today, the Ravens hold a $1.5 billion value.

And Cleveland got a new franchise as promised in 1999 - the Browns. The Cleveland Browns.

Barry Shuck is a pro football historical writer and a member of the Professional Football Researcher’s Association.