The Cleveland Browns have played in what is currently known as FirstEnergy Stadium since returning to the NFL in 1999.
Hastily built, the stadium is functional, which would be fine if it was the 1980s as the Browns had no trouble drawing crowds to a dilapidated Municipal Stadium as they made the playoffs in five consecutive seasons.
But functional is not sustainable in today’s NFL, where lavish luxury suites and fan amenities are, if not on the same level as fielding a winning team, very close to the top of the “must-have” list for NFL owners.
Since 1999, the NFL has seen 17 stadiums constructed, from Paycor Stadium in Cincinnati (2000) to SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles (2020). Along the way, the price has exploded from $350 for Paycor to $5.5 billion for SoFi.
15 of the 30 current NFL stadiums opened between 1995 and 2003— Lev Akabas (@LevAkabas) February 9, 2023
"But the lack of recent openings belies the action behind the scenes, as teams, architects and builders prep for the next stadium boom" - @kbadenhausen
Read more: https://t.co/jZILIDS4aL pic.twitter.com/xM6re3wts0
So it should come as no surprise if Cleveland owners Jimmy and Dee Haslam are looking around the league and wondering what about the future of FirstEnergy Stadium. Since buying the Browns in 2012, the stadium has undergone about $120 million in renovations to add new scoreboards and escalators and reduce the number of seats, but it remains the same functional stadium along the shores of Lake Erie.
The Haslams were asked about the stadium on Monday at the NFL annual meeting and said that renovating the existing facility, as opposed to building a new stadium, is their first choice.
But if the city of Cleveland would approach them about something new? Well, that could change things - depending on how much the city would be willing to pony up, according to Haslam (quote via beaconjournal.com):
“Depends on how much (Cleveland Mayor Justin Bibb) wants to fund. Listen, construction costs have gotten very high lately. And so I think everybody has to be practical and Dee said it well. Cleveland would benefit tremendously from the development of the waterfront. Having the stadium down there seems to be in everybody’s best interest. So we’re committed to redoing the stadium. In all likelihood, it’s not going to have a dome, but it’ll be a substantial remodel of the existing facility and we’re probably 3, 4, 5 years away from that happening.”
Keeping the stadium in its current location likely makes the most sense as there is not a lot of available land in or around downtown to use for a new stadium. With that being the case, a renovation of FirstEnergy Stadium seems prudent.
That becomes even more true given that, unless the Haslams are willing to fund the entire project themselves, the city has more pressing needs than building a football stadium for a team that is valued at $3.85 billion and for Haslam Sports Group, which is valued at $5.63 billion.
And, hopefully, Haslam’s comment that the renovations will not include a dome will finally put that tired talking point to rest. Cleveland is not a destination city in the eyes of many people outside of Northeast Ohio, so the extra cost associated with a dome in the hope that a “big event” will come to town once in a while was never going to be worth the price.
As for what renovations could take place, that part remains to be seen. But it is probably fair to assume that they will focus on making the gameday experience more enjoyable for the high-money crowd, who can bring in more revenue for the team.
Take, for example, the San Francisco 49ers, who are working to borrow $120 million from the NFL’s stadium fund to help with their plans to upgrade premium seating and the scoreboards at Levi’s Stadium, which just opened in 2014. The fund helps teams that are looking to finance stadium projects through a low-interest-rate loan and not having to repay approximately 34 percent of the money.
According to The Athletic’s Daniel Kaplan, the 49ers are looking to make Levi’s Stadium attractive for major events, which require an “upgraded VIP experience.”
What does that look like, you ask? Well, in addition to adding nine luxury suites at the top level, Kaplan writes that the renovated suites will have:
- custom and lockable wine refrigerators
- custom and lockable liquor cabinets
- upgraded seating
- custom shelves to that the suite owners can display their products and services
One last takeaway is the city’s plans for upgrading the waterfront property around the stadium, an area that also includes the Great Lakes Science Center and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Teams in all sports are looking to create ways to maximize the area around their venues, and those types of mixed-use projects can also benefit the city through the use of tax breaks and grants to build spaces that can be used beyond just game days, as this article from sportico.com highlights.
The benefits of building up the area around the stadium are something the Haslams will see firsthand after agreeing to purchase 25 percent of the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks, who established the Deer District around Fiserv Forum when it opened in 2018.
Whatever decision the city and the team come up with, the process is still in the early stages, so Browns fans should settle in for the long haul.