Cleveland Browns relocation controversy
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The Cleveland Browns relocation controversy, sometimes referred to by fans as "The Move", was the decision by then-Browns owner Art Modell to move the National Football League (NFL) team from its longtime home of Cleveland, Ohio, to Baltimore, Maryland, for the 1996 NFL season.
Subsequent legal actions saw a unique compromise that would later set a precedent in American professional sports: A relocating franchise would keep its existing personnel, but such personnel would form (and thus become) an entirely new, separate franchise (in this case, the Browns' original personnel becoming the Baltimore Ravens). The relocated franchise's original heritage would stay in its original city, with new personnel eventually reactivating the officially suspended franchise, thus becoming the new personnel of, and officially continuing the supposedly relocated franchise.
Early stages of the move
In 1973, then-Browns owner Art Modell signed a 25-year lease to operate Cleveland Stadium. 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. In exchange, the company received all revenue generated by the stadium, which amounted to far more than the Stadium Corp. would pay in rent. This represented an enormous loss for the city of Cleveland. Stadium Corp installed new electronic scoreboards and luxury suites. Renting the suites and the scoreboard advertising generated substantial revenue for Stadium Corp and Modell.
However, Modell refused to share the suite revenue with the Cleveland Indians Major League Baseball team (which also played at Cleveland Stadium), even though much of the revenues were generated during baseball games as well as football games.
Financial problems eventually led to Modell moving the Browns. 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. Modell, mistakenly believing that his revenues were not endangered, refused to participate in the Gateway Project that built Jacobs Field (now known as Progressive Field) for the Indians and Gund Arena (now known as Quicken Loans Arena) for the NBA's Cleveland Cavaliers. 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. Soaring player salaries and deficits also contributed to Modell's financial losses. Modell lost $21 million between 1993 and 1994.
Announcing the move
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.
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. However, the team disappointed many fans by losing three straight games after starting the season 3–1.
On November 6, 1995, with the team sitting at 4–5, Modell announced in a press conference at Camden Yards that he had signed a deal to relocate the Browns to Baltimore, Maryland in 1996 – a move which would return the NFL to that city since the Colts relocated to Indianapolis, Indiana after the 1983 season. The reason Modell chose to relocate to Baltimore was because he felt the city had the funding to build a first-class stadium. The very next day, on November 7, Cleveland voters overwhelmingly approved the aforementioned tax issue to remodel Cleveland Stadium.
Browns fans reacted with loads of anger to the news, wearing hats and t-shirts that read "Muck Fodell". Cleveland filed an injunction to keep the Browns in the city until at least 1998, while several other lawsuits were filed by fans and ticket holders. Congress held hearings on the matter. 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. It 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.
Virtually all of the team's sponsors pulled their support, leaving Cleveland Stadium devoid of advertising during the team's final weeks.
On the field, the announcement cut the legs out from under the Browns, as they 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. 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.
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 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, retaining the current contracts of players and personnel. There would be a reactivated team for Cleveland, where the Browns' name, colors, history, records, awards, and archives would remain in Cleveland. The only other current 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.
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. 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. 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.
The return of the NFL to Baltimore effectively killed 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 been a runaway hit both on and off the field, Stallions owner Jim Speros knew he could not compete with an NFL team and opted to move to Montreal.
Focus groups, a telephone survey, and a fan contest were all held to help select a new name for Modell's relocated club. 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. The team also adopted purple and black as their team colors, a stark contrast of the brown and orange colors of the Browns. Ex-Baltimore Colts quarterback Johnny Unitas disowned the Colts after their move to Indianapolis. The former Colts Marching Band, which remained in Baltimore after the Colts moved, was subsequently renamed the Baltimore's Marching Ravens. 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. 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. In the three-year period from 1995–1997, 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), 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 a somewhat ironic twist, Al Lerner—who helped Modell move to Baltimore—was granted ownership of the reactivated Browns; 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. The Houston Texans 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.
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. Longtime placekicker Matt Stover was the last remaining Raven that was with Modell's franchise during the move, having departed the team following the 2008 season when the team chose not to re-sign him. General manager and former Browns tight end Ozzie Newsome (who was in a front-office role with Modell by the time of the move) remains with the Modell franchise.
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% of the Ravens to Steve Bisciotti. In the deal, Bisciotti had an option to purchase the remaining 51% 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. Although Modell later retired and had relinquished control of the Ravens, he is still hated in Cleveland, which had been angry at him long before the move when he fired 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. Modell died in 2012, never returning to Cleveland after the move.
On July 23, 2014, a video surfaced on YouTube of a unidentified Browns fan desecrating the grave of Modell wearing a Lyle Alzado jersey by urinating on the grave through a catheter, saying in the video that "he had no choice", echoing Modell's comments on moving his team to Baltimore. Baltimore County filed charges for disorderly conduct at the request of Modell's son David Modell once the fan was identified.
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. 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. 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. Since returning to the NFL, the Browns and Steelers rivalry has been largely one-sided in favor of Pittsburgh.
Effect on teams in other sports leagues
Major League Baseball
- 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, and 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, a deal similar to what Modell agreed to with the city of Cleveland during the move.
- A similar proposal involves the Montreal Expos, who moved to Washington, D.C. in 2005 to become the Washington Nationals. The Expos' name, logo, colors and history will remain in Montreal until a new team is formed. (It should be noted that when the last two Washington franchises moved, they continued to use their respective teams' records, with the Minnesota Twins being a continuation of the first AL Senators, and the Rangers being the same for the 1961 expansion version.)
Major League Soccer
- In December 2005, the San Jose Earthquakes of Major League Soccer (MLS) moved to Houston, Texas 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. In 2008, the Earthquakes returned under the ownership of Lew Wolff.
National Hockey League
- 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 National Hockey League (NHL)'s Winnipeg Jets announced in 1996 that they would be leaving Manitoba for Phoenix, Arizona and become the Phoenix Coyotes. After the Coyotes went bankrupt in 2010, True North Sports & Entertainment (owners of the AHL's Manitoba Moose) tried to buy the team and return it to Canada, where it would have reassumed the Jets' name and history in Winnipeg. The group failed to do so, but when the Atlanta Thrashers came up for sale a year later, True North purchased them instead and moved them north for the 2011–12 NHL season. Since the NHL had taken control of the Coyotes after their bankruptcy, they had the right 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, as that would remain in Arizona with the Coyotes.
- 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 that is to be used by a future Quebec City NHL franchise. Upon arrival at Denver, the retired numbers were placed back into circulation.
National Basketball Association
- When the National Basketball Association (NBA)'s Seattle SuperSonics moved to Oklahoma City, Oklahoma in 2008, it was agreed 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. The original Sonics, now the Oklahoma City Thunder, will continue to keep the Sonics tie-ins, including records, championships, and retired numbers, until a new Sonics franchise is brought to Seattle. Both the Thunder and a potential new Sonics franchise would "share" the original Sonics history.
- Similar to the NHL's Winnipeg Jets scenario, 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, while the Pelicans are now considered a 2002 expansion team.
- Relocation of professional sports teams
- Cleveland sports curse
- History of the Cleveland Browns
- History of the Baltimore Ravens
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