February 3, 2013

Denied



The nominees are in for the upcoming inductions to the football hall of fame and public enemy number one - Art Modell is on the ballot. Even though, Art succumbed to natural causes last year, that still didn't change the fact that a lot of Clevelanders still think he's a piece of shit. Many felt his move of the Browns has been sole reason why he may never make it there. 

I remember years ago watching a segment with Bob Costas and Mike Ditka about the last game in Cleveland. What stood out was the Ditka's anger about the move and felt the fans deserved better. He said "If it can happen here, it can happen anywhere". He wasn't kidding as a lot of people could never fathom the thought of the Browns ever leaving Cleveland. No football in Cleveland would be the equivalent of no hockey in Toronto. But it took decades of Modell's bumbling and poor business decisions for that to happen. 

When I moved to Cleveland in 1998, the Browns were long gone. It was a dark time and it was far worse in the fall. The Indians were still one of the best teams in baseball, but Cleveland was a football town down to its core. The Municipal Stadium was also gone and a lot of memories are sitting at the bottom of Lake Erie. In its place was the new stadium and the following year the newest version of the Browns would take the field. I knew the history of the Browns, they were once the best in the football but that was a long time ago. They were the last professional sports team to win championship and the city has been starving for one ever since. I remember the heart breaks and the missed opportunities. The Drive, the Fumble, and Red Right 88, all of them part of Browns lore. But the fans stuck by them year after year. They were considered one of the most loyal fans in the NFL. Then there was that fateful day back on November 6th, 1995 when Art announced the unthinkable - he was moving the Browns to Baltimore. 

There are two sides of Art Modell. The one was brilliant in advertising and promotions. He took an active leadership role and served as NFL president. He used that position and his television connections to help negotiate the league's increasingly lucrative television contracts. He was also instrumental in the broadcast of Monday Night football. Those huge television contracts eventually turned the NFL into the pro sports juggernaut of today.

The other side of Art was a stubborn person who's ego and short-sightedness eventually did him in. That started when he fired legendary head coach Paul Brown. Then he forced hall of fame running back Jim Brown into retirement. Then there was the poor business decisions. He took the Municipal Stadium over from the city and negotiated a deal where he would be responsible for repairs and operating costs. The city was more than happy to unload it because it was old and outdated. Art sunk a lot of money into fixing it up and he charged rent to both the Browns and Indians. He took all of the revenue from concessions, advertising, luxury suites and parking. It was a sweet deal at the time, but the Indians started to resent the fact that Modell refused to share revenue. They argued that they brought in the lion share of it as they played 81 home games vs the Browns 8 games. That started to grease the wheels for the Gateway Project. 

New Indians owner, Dick Jacobs persuaded city leaders to build a new baseball stadium and arena in the heart of downtown. Cuyahoga County voters approved the deal through an increase on sin taxes. Once the new stadium opened, Modell watched the mass exodus from his stadium. Adding to his woes, was the rising player and operating costs. Between 1993 and 1994, Modell lost $21 million. The city offered Art a deal for a new stadium, but according to them he refused. Art on the other hand, said he wasn't offered anything. It didn't matter anymore, Art was sinking farther and farther into debt. It became so bad, that he had to go to five Cleveland area banks just to secure a loan to pay for free agent wide receiver Andre Rison's $5 million signing bonus. Rison turned out to be a bust and the Browns floundered. Unlike other NFL owners, the Browns were Modell's only source of income. 

Art was looking for a way out and he made that fateful decision to move the team rather then try to sell it. The city of Baltimore rolled out the red carpet and Art was more than happy to load up the moving trucks. Art said he had no choice but to move. Many in Browns nation wondered why didn't sell to local interests. The Browns had a huge fan base and they always sold out. Art could of made a tidy profit, but instead he put himself first. Art also came off as a hypocrite as he criticized Bob Irsay and Al Davis for moving their respective franchises. It was too late, Art had made up mind and nobody could change it.

But not so fast said the city. Art was so hasty on hitting the road, that he forgot about the lease he signed. He was still on the hook and that would of meant a huge lawsuit and more money that Art didn't have to fight it. In turn for breaking his lease, he kept the team's name, colors, records and history in Cleveland. The last game was played against the Bungles and it was blacked out. From what I heard, it felt like a funeral. Many in the dawg pound started to rip out seats as treasures and that over a half century of memories was officially over. The NFL deactivated the team for three years and in 1999, the second coming of the Browns hit the field with a resounding thud.

For the next 14 years, the Browns have been the doormat of the NFL. Terrible draft picks, clueless management and even more clueless owner in Randy Lerner. To add insult to injury, Art finally won his elusive Super Bowl in 2001. I remember watching Jim Nance asking him what his thoughts were about the fans in Cleveland. Of course, Art couldn't come up with a reasonable answer and it was a half ass apology. A loud and clear fuck you was heard from Cleveland. 

So does Art belong in the hall? Some will he does because Al Davis who flip flopped the Raiders between Oakland and LA and always threatened to move is in the hall. Art played a huge part in the television contracts and making a lot of owners and players today, very wealthy. But the move of storied franchise that represented an entire city forever tarnished him. I work with a lot of Browns fans and their fathers and grandfathers were also huge fans. There are some who refuse to watch the current version of the team, they feel the real Browns are in Baltimore. The other problem is Canton is located 60 miles south of Cleveland and is both part of the Cleveland television market and many there are Browns fans. One of fellow employees said if Modell gets in the hall, he would open up a tomato stand down the street. 

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