Cleveland Browns relocation controversy

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Cleveland Stadium, where the Browns played until 1995. Cleveland Municipal Stadium last game played in the stadium December 17, 1995.jpg
Cleveland Stadium, where the Browns played until 1995.

The Cleveland Browns relocation controversy, sometimes called "The Move" by fans, [1] [2] was caused by the announcement from then-Browns owner Art Modell that he intended to move the Cleveland Browns of the National Football League from its long-time home of Cleveland to Baltimore during the 1995 NFL season. Subsequent legal actions by the city of Cleveland and Browns season ticket holders led the NFL to broker a compromise that saw the Browns franchise, history, records, and intellectual property remain in Cleveland. In return, Modell was permitted to establish a new franchise in Baltimore, which was eventually named the Ravens. Since it was deemed infeasible for the Browns to play the 1996 season in Cleveland under such circumstances, the franchise was officially deactivated by the NFL in February 1996 and Modell was allowed to transfer its football organization to the Ravens. The Ravens are officially regarded by the NFL as an expansion team that began play in 1996.

Contents

The NFL agreed to reactivate the Browns franchise no later than the 1999 season by way of expansion or moving a team from another city, provided the City of Cleveland constructed an NFL-caliber venue to replace the aging Cleveland Stadium. The city of Cleveland demolished Cleveland Stadium beginning in late 1996 and built a new stadium on the same site. In 1998, the NFL decided to re-establish the Browns by way of an expansion draft and sold the Browns franchise to a new owner for $530 million. [3] The re-activated Browns acquired players through an expansion draft and resumed play in 1999.

This compromise, which was unprecedented in North American professional sports, has since been cited in franchise moves and agreements in other leagues, including ones in Major League Baseball, Major League Soccer, the National Basketball Association, and the National Hockey League.

Dissatisfaction with Cleveland Stadium

Art Modell. 1980-modell-browns crop.jpg
Art Modell.

In 1975, knowing that Municipal Stadium was costing the city over $300,000 annually to operate, then-Browns owner Art Modell signed a 25-year lease in which he agreed to incur these expenses in exchange for: quasi-ownership of the stadium, a portion of his annual profits, and capital improvements to the stadium at his expense. [4] Modell's new company, Stadium Corporation, paid the city annual rents of $150,000 for the first five years and $200,000 afterwards.

Modell had originally promised never to move the Browns. He had publicly criticized the Baltimore Colts' move to Indianapolis, and had testified in favor of the NFL in court cases where the league unsuccessfully tried to stop Al Davis from moving the Oakland Raiders to Los Angeles.

However, Modell refused to share the suite revenue with the Cleveland Indians, who also played at Cleveland Stadium, even though much of the revenues were generated during baseball games.

In 1990, the Indians convinced local government and voters to build a new ballpark and give the suite revenue to the baseball corporation. [5] [4] Modell, mistakenly believing that his revenues were not endangered, decided not to participate in the Gateway Project that built Jacobs Field for the Indians and Gund Arena for the Cleveland Cavaliers. [6] Modell's assumptions proved incorrect, and Stadium Corporation's suite revenues declined sharply when the Indians moved to Jacobs Field in 1994. [4] Soaring player salaries and deficits put additional financial pressure on the Browns' owner. Modell claimed to have lost $21 million between 1993 and 1994. [7]

Announcing the move

Modell had long been one of the poorest owners in the NFL, despite his longstanding influence in league circles. He'd borrowed the bulk of the money he'd used to buy the Browns in 1961, and had spent most of the next 34 years in financial difficulty. For example, he tried to dump several bad loans onto the Browns, prompting one of his minority partners to take him to court. As early as 1983, Modell had come to believe that he would never be able to pay all of his debts before his deal with the city expired. [8] The loss of revenue from the Indians thus hit Modell especially hard. After Modell realized how much revenue he lost from the Indians moving out of Cleveland Stadium, he requested an issue be placed on the ballot to provide $175 million in tax dollars to refurbish the outmoded and declining Cleveland Stadium. [9]

On December 12, 1994, Modell told his board that he didn't believe a referendum to raise the sin tax would pass. The proceeds would have been used to either fund a renovated Municipal Stadium or a new stadium. Modell said that if the referendum failed, he would have no choice but to move the Browns. [8]

Entering the 1995 season, the Browns, coached by Bill Belichick, were coming off a playoff season in which the team finished 11–5 and advanced to the second round of the playoffs. Sports Illustrated predicted that the Browns would represent the AFC in Super Bowl XXX at the end of the season, and the team started 3–1, but they then lost their next three games. [10] [11]

While this was happening, Browns minority owner Al Lerner was privately prodding Modell to consider moving to Baltimore. He urged Modell to contact newly installed Maryland Stadium Authority chairman John Moag. Earlier in the year, the league had told Moag that Baltimore would get a team–either an expansion team or a relocated existing team–if a stadium were already in place. Elected officials in Baltimore and Maryland were still smarting from the Colts moving to Indianapolis after the 1983 season, and refused to commit any money towards a new stadium unless the Stadium Authority secured a deal with a team. With this in mind, Moag made several calls to Modell that went ignored for much of 1995. Finally, in late July, Modell allowed Lerner to meet with Moag, provided that Lerner stress that Modell was not serious about moving. At that meeting, Moag laid out an offer in which the Browns would get the rights to a new, $220 million stadium if they moved to Baltimore. However, Moag told Lerner to take the offer back to Modell only if he was serious about considering a move. [8]

Negotiations continued in secret until September, when Moag told Lerner that if the Browns were serious about moving, "you need to act and act now." A few days later, Lerner, Modell and Moag met at Lerner's Midtown Manhattan office. At that meeting, Moag presented a memorandum of understanding that was almost identical to what he'd offered the Cincinnati Bengals a few months earlier–a deal that ultimately led Cincinnati voters to pass a referendum that built what would become Paul Brown Stadium. Indeed, some paragraphs still referred to "Cincinnati" rather than "Cleveland." Modell still had some trepidation about the deal, but signed after Moag assured him that Baltimore fans would hail him as a hero. [8]

Soon afterward, Modell told San Francisco 49ers president Carmen Policy that he was moving the Browns to Baltimore. Policy had been well aware that relations between Modell and Cleveland had become rather strained, and was secretly working with Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney to keep the Browns in Cleveland. Policy urged Modell to sit down with NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue in hopes of resolving the situation, but Modell rejected it out of hand. [8]

On November 6, 1995, with the team at 4–5, [11] Modell announced in a press conference at Camden Yards that he had signed a deal to move the Browns to Baltimore for the 1996 season. [4] [12] Modell said he felt the city of Cleveland did not have the funding nor political will to build a first-class stadium. [13] The very next day, on November 7, Cleveland voters overwhelmingly approved the aforementioned tax issue to remodel Cleveland Stadium. [14] Despite this, Modell ruled out a reversal of his decision, maintaining publicly that his relationship with Cleveland had been irrevocably severed. "The bridge is down, burned, disappeared", he said. "There's not even a canoe there for me." [15] In truth, Modell had been brought to tears when he signed the memorandum of understanding in September; he had told Moag that signing it was "the hardest thing I've ever done" and meant "the end of our life in Cleveland." Years later, longtime Browns general counsel Jim Bailey told The Athletic that Modell was "an emotional wreck" when he signed the memorandum. [8]

Initial reaction

The City of Cleveland sued Modell, the Browns, Stadium Corp, the Maryland Stadium Authority, and the authority's director, John A. Moag Jr., in City of Cleveland v. Cleveland Browns, et al., Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas Case No. CV-95-297833, for breaching the Browns' lease, which required the team to play its home games at Cleveland Stadium for several years beyond 1995, filing an injunction to keep the Browns in the city until at least 1998. Several other lawsuits were filed by fans and ticket holders. [14] [16] The United States Congress even held hearings on the matter. [17] [18]

Actor/comedian Drew Carey returned to his hometown of Cleveland on November 26, 1995, to host "Fan Jam" in protest of the proposed move. A protest was held in Pittsburgh during the Browns' game there against the Pittsburgh Steelers, but ABC, the network broadcasting the game (and also the home of Carey's new sitcom that had just premiered), declined to cover or mention the protest. That game was one of the few instances that Steelers fans and Browns fans were supportive of each other, as fans in Pittsburgh felt that Modell was robbing their team of their long-standing rivalry with the Browns. [14] Browns fans reacted with anger to the news, [16] wearing hats and T-shirts that read "Muck Fodell". [19]

On the field, the Browns stumbled to finish 5–11 after the announcement, ahead of only the expansion Jacksonville Jaguars, to whom they lost twice, in the AFC Central, becoming the first team in the NFL's modern era to lose twice to a first-year expansion team. [11] Virtually all of the team's sponsors pulled their support, [14] leaving Cleveland Stadium devoid of advertising during the team's final weeks. After the announcement, the team lost all their home games except the final, in which they defeated the Cincinnati Bengals 26–10. [20] The game itself was blacked out on television locally on WKYC, but NBC did broadcast extensive pregame coverage from Cleveland.

Settlement

After extensive talks between the NFL, the Browns, and officials of the two cities, Cleveland accepted a legal settlement that would keep the Browns legacy in Cleveland. While a number of parties had already expressed interest in acquiring the Browns by this point, it soon became clear that no viable owner would be ready to operate a football team on short notice. Even without that to consider, the NFL had insisted on the replacement of Cleveland Stadium and the city had no other venue suitable for even temporary use. Thus, on February 9, 1996, the NFL announced that the Browns franchise would be 'deactivated' for three years, and that a new stadium would be built for a new Browns team, as either an expansion team or a team moved from another city, that would begin play in 1999. Modell would in turn then be granted a new franchise (the 31st NFL franchise), for Baltimore. Because he was permitted to retain the current contracts of players and other football personnel, and changed the name of his corporate entity from Cleveland Browns, Inc. to Baltimore Ravens, Inc., [21] Modell is typically reckoned to have moved the football organization, but not the franchise itself. The settlement stipulated that the reactivated team for Cleveland would retain the Browns' name, colors, history, records, awards, and archives. The move was approved by league owners after a 25–2 vote with three abstentions. The two "no" votes were from Ralph Wilson of Buffalo and Dan Rooney of Pittsburgh. [20] [22] [23]

An additional stipulation was that in any future realignment plan, the Browns would be placed in a division with the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals, because of long-standing rivalries with those two teams. [24] Upon their reactivation in 1999, the Browns were placed back in the AFC Central with the Steelers and Bengals, as well as the Ravens, Titans, and Jaguars. This arrangement put teams from Baltimore, Cleveland and Pittsburgh in the same division for the first time in NFL history. When the NFL realigned into divisions of four teams for the 2002 season, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and Baltimore remained together in the new AFC North. Tennessee, Jacksonville, Indianapolis (from the AFC East), and the new Houston Texans were placed in the new AFC South.

The only other active NFL team to temporarily suspend operations without merging with another was Cleveland's previous NFL team, the Cleveland Rams, during the 1943 season at the height of World War II. [25]

Aftermath and legacy

The return of the NFL to Baltimore compelled the departure of the professional football team already in Baltimore at the time, the Grey Cup champion Baltimore Stallions of the Canadian Football League (CFL). Although they had drawn respectable fan support during their two seasons in Baltimore, Stallions owner Jim Speros knew his team could not compete with an NFL team and opted to establish a new franchise in Montreal. [26] They subsequently assumed the name and history of the team that previously played in the city, the Alouettes, who had ceased operations just days before the start of the 1987 season. Like the Browns, the Alouettes (who incidentally were originally founded in 1946, the same year as the Browns) were formally recognized as having resumed operations after a hiatus although unlike the Browns, the decision to brand Speros' team as a revival of the previous franchise had not been previously planned and was made retroactively at the time of their revival. Much of the Stallions' roster and most of the Stallions' other football personnel made the move to Montreal, although unlike Modell, Speros was not formally given the sort of successor rights to existing contracts that would have allowed him to transplant his football organization to Montreal in the same manner was done from Cleveland to Baltimore. This would have been problematic due to the CFL's requirement that the re-activated Alouettes adhere to roster limits on American players (then called "imports") from which the defunct U. S. CFL teams had been exempt. The ability of Speros to retain the core of his championship roster to the point that the transaction superficially appeared to be a "move" was the result of a gentlemen's agreement between Speros and the other CFL teams. CFL commissioner Larry Smith, an Alouettes alumnus who was keen to ensure the revived Montreal franchise was an immediate contender, had pressured the other CFL teams to agree not to aggressively pursue what were technically free agents.

Focus groups, a telephone survey, and a fan contest were all held to help select a new name for Modell's team. Starting with a list of over 100 possible names, the team's management reduced it to 17. From there, focus groups of a total of 200 Baltimore area residents reduced the list of names to six, and then a phone survey of 1000 people trimmed it down to three, Marauders, Americans, and Ravens. Finally, a fan contest drawing 33,288 voters picked "Ravens", a name that alludes to the famous poem, "The Raven", by Edgar Allan Poe, who spent the latter part of his life in Baltimore, and is buried there. [27] The team also adopted purple and black as their team colors, a stark contrast to the brown and orange colors of the Browns. [28] The former Colts Marching Band, which remained in Baltimore after the Colts moved to Indianapolis, was subsequently renamed the Baltimore's Marching Ravens. [29] Along with the San Francisco 49ers, Buffalo Bills, and the Washington Football Team, the Ravens are one of only four NFL teams with an official marching band.

Modell's move to Baltimore came amid an unprecedented flurry of similar threats — and actual moves — [30] [31] that fueled 12 new stadiums throughout the NFL. The Seahawks, Buccaneers, Bengals, Lions, Cardinals, and Bears used the threat of moving to coerce their respective cities to build new stadiums with public funds. [30] [31] Modell's team was one of four that actually moved between 1995 and 1997: Los Angeles lost both of its teams for the 1995 season, as the Raiders moved back to Oakland and the Rams moved east to St. Louis (the Rams would later move back to Los Angeles in 2016); and the Houston Oilers moved to Tennessee in 1997, where they become the Tennessee Titans two years later.

After several NFL teams threatened to move to Cleveland to become the reactivated Browns (most notably the Tampa Bay Buccaneers [32] ), the NFL decided in 1998 to make the reactivated Browns an expansion team; while temporarily giving the league an odd number of teams (causing at least one team to be off in each of the 17 weeks of the NFL season from 1999–2001), this also eliminated any possibility of an existing franchise giving up its own identity for the Browns and thus prevented more lawsuits. In an ironic twist, Al Lerner—who helped Modell move to Baltimore—was granted ownership of the reactivated Browns; [33] his son Randy took over ownership after Al's death in 2002 before selling the team to Pilot Flying J CEO Jimmy Haslam in 2012.

From its beginning, the odd number of teams and the ensuing awkward scheduling was considered a temporary arrangement pending the addition of a 32nd NFL franchise. Although Los Angeles was heavily favored, it was ultimately Houston that was awarded the league's 32nd team for the 2002 NFL season. The 2002 expansion led to a major re-alignment of the NFL into eight four-team divisions. The Jaguars and Titans joined the Texans in the new AFC South along with the Colts, Baltimore's former team, who moved from the AFC East. The Browns and Ravens' division was rebranded as the AFC North. Finally, to keep the conferences equal in size, the Seattle Seahawks (who had played their inaugural season in the National Football Conference) moved from the AFC West to the NFC West.

Following Houston's return to the NFL, Los Angeles became the favored destination for owners threatening to move their teams until the St. Louis Rams finally returned to Los Angeles for the 2016 season, [34] followed by the San Diego Chargers (who had previously called L.A. home in the early days of the American Football League) one year later. [35]

The reactivated Browns have had only three winning seasons since returning to the NFL in 1999, with records of 9–7 in 2002, 10–6 in 2007, and 11–5 in 2020, earning wild card berths in the playoffs in 2002 and 2020. Meanwhile, the Ravens have been more successful, reaching the playoffs eight times since 2000 and winning Super Bowl XXXV and Super Bowl XLVII, to the dismay of Browns fans. [20] [36] Longtime placekicker Matt Stover was the last remaining Ravens player that played for the Modell-owned Browns—he departed the Ravens following the 2008 season when the team chose not to re-sign him, finishing his career with the Indianapolis Colts. [37] General manager and former Browns tight end Ozzie Newsome (who was in a front-office role under Modell in Cleveland) remained with the Ravens until his retirement in 2018.

The move would also have an effect in Pittsburgh. Steelers owner Dan Rooney was one of two owners to oppose Modell's move to Baltimore because of a mutual respect for the team and the fans. Because of the move, the Browns–Steelers rivalry, arguably one of the most heated rivalries in the NFL, has somewhat cooled in Pittsburgh due to the new Browns' lack of success. The Steelers–Ravens rivalry is considered the spiritual successor by fans in Pittsburgh and is one of the most heated current rivalries in the NFL. [38] Since returning to the NFL, the Browns and Steelers rivalry has been largely one-sided in favor of Pittsburgh; although the rivalry is not as intense in Pittsburgh, Browns fans still consider it their top rivalry despite the Browns' recent struggles against the Steelers. However, the rivalry began to heat up on the Pittsburgh side when the Browns defeated the Steelers 48-37 in the 2020 Wild Card playoff round. [39]

Modell continued to struggle financially even after the move. Like several other owners who had acquired their teams prior to the AFL-NFL merger Modell's net worth by the end of his tenure was primarily derived from the appreciation of his team's value, and he had relatively little outside wealth to help underwrite his club's expenses. Because of such continual financial hardships, the NFL directed Modell to initiate the sale of his franchise. On March 27, 2000, NFL owners approved the sale of 49 percent of the Ravens to Steve Bisciotti. [40] In the deal, Bisciotti had an option to purchase the remaining 51 percent for $325 million in 2004 from Art Modell. On April 8, 2004, the NFL approved Steve Bisciotti's purchase of the majority stake in the club. [41]

Although Modell later retired and had relinquished control of the Ravens, he is still despised in Cleveland, not only for moving the Browns, but also for his firing of legendary head coach Paul Brown in 1963. Some consider the Browns' move and subsequent lawsuits as having cost Modell a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, which is in Canton, Ohio, 60 miles south of Cleveland and part of the Cleveland television market and Browns' territorial rights. [42] [43] Modell died in 2012, having never returned to Cleveland. [7] The Browns were the only home team that did not acknowledge, much less commemorate, Modell's death the following Sunday. The team opted not to do so at the request of David Modell, who feared that the announcement would be met with anger by Browns fans still upset about the move. [44]

Effect on teams in other sports leagues

Major League Baseball

Major League Soccer

National Hockey League

National Basketball Association

See also

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Further reading