Cleveland Browns relocation controversy

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Cleveland Stadium, where the Browns played until 1995.

The Cleveland Browns relocation controversy, sometimes referred to by fans as "The Move",[1][2] was the decision by then-Browns owner Art Modell to relocate the National Football League (NFL)'s Cleveland Browns 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 history, records, and intellectual property remain in Cleveland. In return, Modell was permitted to move his football organization to Baltimore where he established the Baltimore Ravens. The Ravens are officially regarded by the NFL as an expansion team that began play in 1996. The city of Cleveland agreed to demolish Cleveland Stadium and build a new stadium on the same site, and the NFL agreed to reactivate the Browns by the 1999 season through either an expansion draft or a relocated franchise. The Browns were officially reactivated in 1998 through the expansion process and resumed play in 1999.

The compromise between Cleveland, the NFL, and Modell was a first in North American professional sports. The compromise has been cited in franchise moves and agreements in other leagues, including those in Major League Baseball, Major League Soccer, the National Basketball Association, and the National Hockey League.

Dissatisfaction with Cleveland Stadium[edit]

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 whereby he agreed to incur these expenses in exchange for quasi ownership of the stadium. Under the terms of the lease he agreed to give back the City a portion of the profits he would realize each year, and also agreed to make capital improvements to the stadium at his expense.[3] Modell's newly formed company, Stadium Corporation, paid an annual rent of $150,000 for the first five years and $200,000 afterwards to the city.

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 as well as football games.

In 1990, the Indians prevailed upon the local governments and voters and convinced them to build them their own facility where they controlled the suite revenue.[4][5] 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 Corp's suite revenues declined sharply when the Indians moved from the stadium to Jacobs Field in 1994.[5] 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[edit]

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.[8]

On the field, 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 entering the 1995 season. Sports Illustrated even predicted the Browns would represent the AFC in Super Bowl XXX at the end of the season.[9] However, the team disappointed many fans by losing three straight games after starting the season 3–1.[10]

On November 6, 1995, with the team sitting at 4–5,[10] Modell announced in a press conference at Camden Yards that he had signed a deal to relocate the Browns to Baltimore in 1996 – a move which would return the NFL to that city since the Colts relocated to Indianapolis after the 1983 season.[5][11] The reason Modell chose to relocate to Baltimore was because he said he felt the city of Cleveland did not have the funding nor political will to build a first-class stadium.[12] The very next day, on November 7, Cleveland voters overwhelmingly approved the aforementioned tax issue to remodel Cleveland Stadium.[13]

Initial reaction[edit]

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.[13][14] The United States Congress even held hearings on the matter.[15][16]

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.[13] Browns fans reacted with anger to the news,[14] wearing hats and T-shirts that read "Muck Fodell".[17]

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.[10] Virtually all of the team's sponsors pulled their support,[13] leaving Cleveland Stadium devoid of advertising during the team's final weeks. The final game the team played at Cleveland Municipal Stadium was a 26–10 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals, the first and only win since the announcement of the relocation.[18] The game itself was blacked out on television locally, but NBC did broadcast extensive pregame coverage from Cleveland.


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. 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, Modell is typically reckoned to have moved the football organization that operated in Cleveland from 1946 to 1995, 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.[18][19]

An additional stipulation was that in any future realignment plan, the Browns would automatically be placed in a division with the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals, because of longstanding rivalries with those two teams.[20] 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 had the effect of creating – for the first time in NFL history – an alignment with teams from Baltimore, Cleveland and Pittsburgh all playing in the same division. When the NFL realigned into divisions of four teams for the 2002 season, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and Baltimore remained together, but in the newly created AFC North. Tennessee, Jacksonville, Indianapolis, and the newly formed Houston Texans were placed in the newly created AFC South.

The only other currently-active NFL team to suspend operations without merging with another was Cleveland's previous NFL team, the Rams, during the 1943 season at the height of World War II.[21]

Aftermath and legacy[edit]

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 generated 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.[22] They subsequently adopted the name and assumed the history of the team that previously played in the city, the Alouettes, who had ceased operations in 1987. 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") that the defunct U.S. CFL teams had not been bound to. 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 also buried there.[23] The team also adopted purple and black as their team colors, a stark contrast to the brown and orange colors of the Browns.[24] The former Colts Marching Band, which remained in Baltimore after the Colts moved to Indianapolis, was subsequently renamed the Baltimore's Marching Ravens.[25] Along with the San Francisco 49ers, Buffalo Bills, and Washington Redskins, the Ravens are one of only four NFL teams with an official marching band.

Modell's move to Baltimore came at the height of NFL teams relocating.[26][27] The move also fueled a proliferation of 12 new stadiums throughout the NFL. Several NFL franchises used the threat of relocation to coerce their respective cities to build new stadiums with public funds. Such franchises include the Seahawks, Buccaneers, Bengals, Lions, Cardinals, and Bears.[26][27] In the three-year period from 19951997, four NFL teams moved. In addition to Modell's move, 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 fourth and final move saw the Houston Oilers move to Tennessee in 1997 to eventually become the Tennessee Titans in 1999.

After several NFL teams used Cleveland as a relocation threat to become the reactivated Browns (most notably the Tampa Bay Buccaneers[28]), the NFL decided in 1998 to make the reactivated Browns an expansion team, which while it temporarily gave 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), it 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;[29] 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 the Houston Texans who were created as the 32nd team to replace the Oilers in Houston, Texas for the 2002 NFL season to give the league once again an even number of teams. Following this decision, 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,[30] 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.[31]

The reactivated Browns have had only two winning seasons since returning to the NFL in 1999: a 9–7 finish in 2002 which also saw the team clinch a wild card spot in the playoffs, and a 10–6 finish in 2007 while barely missing the playoffs. Meanwhile, the Ravens have been more successful, reaching the playoffs eight times since 2000 and winning Super Bowl XXXV and Super Bowl XLVII, often to the dismay of Browns fans.[18][32] 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.[33] General manager and former Browns tight end Ozzie Newsome (who was in a front-office role under Modell in Cleveland) remains with the Ravens.

The move would also have an effect in Pittsburgh as well. 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.[34] 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.

Because of 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.[35] 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.[36]

Although Modell later retired and had relinquished control of the Ravens, he is still hated in Cleveland, not only for relocating the Browns, but also for his firing of legendary head coach Paul Brown in 1963. Some considered the Browns' relocation and subsequent lawsuits costing Modell a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, which is located in Canton, Ohio, just 60 miles south of Cleveland and is both part of the Cleveland television market and part of the Browns' territorial rights.[37][38] Modell died in 2012, never returning to Cleveland after the move.[7] The Browns were the only home team that did not commemorate or even acknowledge 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.[39]

Effect on teams in other sports leagues[edit]

Major League Baseball[edit]

  • The Minnesota Twins, when they signed their deal with Hennepin County, Minnesota for Target Field in 2006, agreed to a provision that was signed into law that allows the state of Minnesota the right of first refusal to buy the team if it is ever sold. Also, it requires that the name, colors, World Series trophies, and history of the team remain in Minnesota if the Twins are ever moved out of state. The deal is similar to what Modell agreed to with the city of Cleveland during the move.

Major League Soccer[edit]

  • In December 2005, the San Jose Earthquakes moved to Houston to become the Houston Dynamo. At the time, it was announced by the league that while players and staff would move with the team, the team name, colors, logo, and records (including two championship trophies) would stay in San Jose for when a new expansion team arrives.[40][41] In 2008, the Earthquakes returned under the ownership of Lew Wolff.
  • The Browns move in 1996 had a direct effect on a proposed move of Columbus Crew SC to Austin, Texas; the Modell Law, which was implemented in 1996, prohibits sports teams that benefited from public facilities or financial assistance from relocating to another city without a six-month notice and attempting to sell the team to a local ownership group, with a lawsuit being filed by Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine and the city of Columbus. Rather ironically, Cleveland Browns owner Jimmy Haslam has offered to buy the Columbus Crew in order to keep them in Columbus.[42]

National Hockey League[edit]

  • After the Quebec Nordiques moved to Denver in 1995 to become the Colorado Avalanche, the franchise's retired numbers, name, logos, and historical stats remained in Quebec City and are expected to be used by any future Quebec City NHL franchise that may be established or relocate there. Upon arrival at Denver, the Nordiques' retired numbers were placed back into circulation.
  • On the other hand, in a more recent professional sports franchise relocation scenario, a team retook the name of the city's previous team that bore that name (as the relocated Baltimore Stallions did when the Ravens forced their move to Montreal). The Winnipeg Jets announced in 1996 that they would be leaving Manitoba for Phoenix, Arizona and become the Phoenix Coyotes. After the Coyotes went bankrupt and were taken over by the league in 2009, Winnipeg-based True North Sports & Entertainment offered to buy the team and return it to Canada, where it presumably would have re-assumed the Jets' name and history in Winnipeg. The NHL turned down that proposal because they still thought an owner willing to operate the franchise in Arizona could be found and because the municipal government had agreed to subsidize the Coyotes' financial losses, while also confirming that their preference would be to return the team to Manitoba if that effort proved unsuccessful. However, when the Atlanta Thrashers came up for sale a year later the league decided that, compared to Phoenix, they had no realistic prospect of finding another owner willing to operate a franchise in Atlanta, so they arranged for True North to purchase that franchise instead and move them north for the 2011–12 NHL season. Since the NHL was still in control of the Coyotes after their bankruptcy, they had the prerogative to decide if the new Winnipeg team could assume both the identity and the history. The league elected to let True North and the new Jets use the identity, but not the history, which remained in Arizona with the Coyotes. Among other things, the "new" Jets organization effectively recognized the league decision when they immediately re-issued the team's #9 jersey to forward Evander Kane (who had worn the same number in Atlanta), notwithstanding that number's retirement by the former Jets/Coyotes organization in recognition of superstar Bobby Hull's tenure with the original Jets. Forward Bryan Little switched to #18 from his original #10 in respect to Dale Hawerchuk, often considered the greatest original Jet. In July 15, 2016, the Jets announced the creation of the Winnipeg Jets Hall of Fame, to honour the impact and accomplishments of the team's hockey legends and celebrate the rich history of professional hockey in the city, with four players currently inducted, each from the old era of Jets play, such as Bobby Hull, Dale Hawerchuk, Ulf Nilsson and Anders Hedberg.

National Basketball Association[edit]

  • The Seattle SuperSonics relocation to Oklahoma City in 2008 included an agreement that the SuperSonics' name, logo, colors, and history would all be left in Seattle. This also includes banners and trophies, which would be displayed in a museum until a new franchise is brought to Seattle to be hung from the rafters of its arena.[43] The original franchise, now the Oklahoma City Thunder, continue to keep the SuperSonics tie-ins, including records, championships, and retired numbers, until a new SuperSonics franchise is brought to Seattle. Both the Thunder and a potential new SuperSonics franchise would "share" the original SuperSonics history.
  • Similar to the Winnipeg Jets scenario in the NHL, the NBA first entered Charlotte in 1988 in the form of the Charlotte Hornets. That team remained in Charlotte until moving to New Orleans after the 2001–02 season, retaining the Hornets name. The league returned to Charlotte for the 2004–05 season with a new team, the Charlotte Bobcats. After the New Orleans franchise changed its name to the Pelicans after the 2012–13 season, the Bobcats announced that they would reclaim the "Hornets" name effective with the 2014–15 season. When the name change from Bobcats to Hornets became official in May 2014, it was also announced that the Hornets, Pelicans, and the NBA had reached an agreement that all history and records of the original Charlotte Hornets would be transferred to the revived Hornets. As a result, the Hornets are now considered to have been established in 1988, suspended operations in 2002, and resumed in 2004 (as the Bobcats, then again changing their name back to the Hornets in 2014), while the Pelicans are now considered a 2002 expansion team.[44]

See also[edit]


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  4. ^ Munson, Lester (December 4, 1995). "A Busted Play". Sports Illustrated. Retrieved June 3, 2016.
  5. ^ a b c Henkel 2005, p. 102
  6. ^ Naymik, Mark (September 13, 2012). "Art Modell was offered a stadium for the Cleveland Browns and passed". The Plain Dealer. Retrieved June 3, 2016.
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  33. ^ Grossi, Tony (February 5, 2010). "Indianapolis Colts kicker Matt Stover has many ties to Cleveland Browns". The Plain Dealer. Retrieved June 3, 2016.
  34. ^ "Top 10 New NFL Rivalries". Sports Illustrated. December 15, 2005. Retrieved June 10, 2018.
  35. ^ "Bisciotti approved as co-owner of Ravens". Associated Press. 2000-03-27. Retrieved 2011-03-12.
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  37. ^ Livingston, Bill (December 12, 2010). "Upon further review, Art Modell's case for Canton gets weaker every year". The Plain Dealer. Retrieved June 4, 2016.
  38. ^ Clayton, John (September 6, 2012). "Modell was mostly a model owner". ESPN. Retrieved June 3, 2016.
  39. ^
  40. ^ Halpin, Jason (December 15, 2005). "Earthquakes set to move to Houston". MLS Digital. Retrieved June 10, 2018.
  41. ^ "San Jose's MLS team moving to Houston". USA Today. Associated Press. December 15, 2005. Retrieved 2009-03-02.
  42. ^ "Statement from Dee and Jimmy Haslam on interest in Columbus Crew". (Press release). NFL Enterprises, LLC. October 12, 2018. Retrieved October 13, 2018.
  43. ^ "THE PROFESSIONAL BASKETBALL CLUB, LLC AND CITY OF SEATTLE SETTLEMENT AGREEMENT" (PDF) (Press release). City of Seattle, Washington. July 2, 2008. Retrieved June 3, 2016.
  44. ^ "Charlotte Hornets Name Returns to Carolinas". (Press release). NBA Media Ventures, LLC. May 20, 2014. Retrieved May 23, 2014.

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