Art Modell, 1925 – 2012.
“The evil that men do lives after them.
The good is oft interred with their bones.
So let it be with Caeser.”
– “Julius Caeser” Act III, Scene Tw0 by William Shakespeare
“We are not moving to Baltimore. In fact, we are trying to move back to Cleveland”, says Cleveland Brown, a Cleveland native whose father, grandfather and great-grandfather were also named Cleveland Brown, and whose 13-year-old son is named Cleveland Brown as well. The 38-year-old nuclear medicine technician now lives in Middletown, Ohio. “And no,” he says, “my son and I are not changing our names to Baltimore Browns, though I get asked that 14 times a day…..I’m not much of a football fan,” says Brown, “but when the Browns said they were moving, it really affected me. Not because of my name, but because for 50 years support for that team by the people has been phenomenal.” And that, of course, is what makes this particular move so extraordinary. And so extraordinarily sad.”
It was a black day in the fine city of Cleveland on that date – November 6, 1995. And surely it was one of the darkest days in the Hall of Shame for pro sports. For this was the day on which Art Modell, the owner of one of the proudest, and finest franchises in the history of the National Football League (NFL) announced that he was packing up “his” team and leaving the fans who had so loyally supported their team for 50 years. Never mind the fans who had grown up with the team. Never mind that this was one city which clearly and unequivocally had shown their support for this team for year after year. And some of those years had been pretty lean. No, Mr. Modell had gotten a better deal elsewhere, and he was leaving.
Modell’s Double Dealing
Modell claimed that the financial situation in which he found the Browns left him no choice but to move his team. He pointed out that the Browns were $40 million in debt and that he personally had loaned the team $10 million. How could this be? How could a team that had sold 80% or better capacity of it’s seats all but four times between ’76 and ’94(selling 89% or better in eleven of those years including ALL of years from ’88 onward) be in such a state of indebtedness? The answer to that was in Modell’s own blown financial dealings. Modell bought 51% of the team in 1961. In 1973, seeing that the city of Cleveland was losing money on its operation of Cleveland Stadium, he signed a 25 year lease of the stadium with the city, which gave him the rights to rent the stadium to both the Browns and the Indians – Cleveland’s pro baseball franchise. In return, he would receive all the revenue that the stadium would generate including signage, parking and concession sales. In return, he would pay $150,000 per year for the first five years of the deal, and $200,000 thereafter. This was such an excellent deal for himself Modell thought, that he formed a separate stadium company, which he kept mostly for himself, and not for his partners in operating for the Browns.
Modell’s Double Dealing Starts to Come Home to Roost
But when he woke up, and found himself operating a 43 year-old stadium with many structural problems, the deal proved to be not so excellent. Structural beams that had eroded with age threw a monkey-wrench into Modell’s plans to install luxury boxes, new locker rooms for the visiting teams, new restrooms and a big new modern scoreboard. He had to borrow $10 million just to fulfill these commitments to begin with. With the Indians drawing so poorly at that time, debts to the team, AND to Modell’s private stadium company began to snowball. He then tried to sell his fellow operators of the Browns on buying the stadium from him. This would have produced $4.8 million for Modell, and relieved him of his debt while transferring the debt to the Browns. But that deal was squelched by by Robert Gries, who owning 43% of the Browns didn’t like the idea of their being saddled with Modell’s debt. Modell it turned out, had purchased property in Strongsville, Ohio upon which he had hoped to build a new stadium, and which he had greatly overvalued. This would have been a part of the stadium company which Modell proposed to sell to the Browns. It took four years, but Gries prevailed in court.
Modell to Cleveland: “I’m Outta Here!!”
So, as a result of Modell’s faulty business judgement, the city of Cleveland was deprived of it’s team and a considerable portion of it’s heart on this dark day back in ’95. Nevermind that the voters of the city had approved the funds to build a new stadium, just a short time from this whole wretched business. Baltimore offered more monetary sweetness, and Modell just booked. But there is a happy ending – the city of Cleveland was given an NFL expansion franchise in 1999, and retained the use of the Browns name and logos. It has been an uphill climb for the Browns, and continues to be to this day. But this writer, a life-long Bengals fan is very pleased to see them reoccupying their rightful and cherished place in the NFL, and looks forward to a renewal of their rivalry. And the best of all parts of the happy ending: Art Modell never again set foot in Cleveland.
The Baltimore Ravens managed to prosper on the football field, winning Superbowl XXXV following the 2000 NFL season after which Modell handed day to day operations over to his son David. But Modell just couldn’t make ends meet. So he was obliged by the NFL to sell the franchise in 2003. He died of natural causes on June 6, 2012. And on that point, I shall leave the last word to Marc Antony whom I quoted via the Bard at the beginning of this posting.
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“The Heart of a City” by Steve Rushin, “Sports Illustrated” Dec. 5, 1995.
by William Shakespeare, London, England, @ 1599.