The issue of Cleveland Browns Stadium has become a recent topic of public debate. Whether to build a new stadium or remodel the current stadium is the decision that looms for the near future of Cleveland sports. To get a true understanding of what is the best course of action, we need to revisit how we got here in the first place.
On November 6, 1995, Art Modell announced in Baltimore MD that the Cleveland Browns were moving to Baltimore for the 1996 season. Not only did this move break the hearts of Browns fans it was unprecedented. Prior to this news leaking to the public. The team was tied for first place in the AFC Central Division with a 4-4 record. The next day Cuyahoga County was voting on a sin tax extension to remodel Cleveland Municipal Stadium. Then head coach Bill Belichick had no idea how to handle this situation. He did his research and could never find any previous time when a team announced a move mid-season. The Browns finished the 1995 season with a 5-11 record.
The reason for Art Modell’s move was the long-overdue need for a new stadium. In 1973 he took control of The Stadium Corp. signing a lease that was in force through 1998. He had three years left on that lease in 1995. Modell was financially responsible for the maintenance and upgrades of the 64-year-old stadium. He spent millions of his own dollars to do this. In return, he received the revenue of concessions for the Cleveland Indians games. In 1994 the Indians relocated to then named Jacobs Field. Modell lost that revenue. Also, the Cleveland Cavaliers were relocated to a new arena in Downtown Cleveland. Previously they played at the Coliseum in Richfield. Art Modell felt neglected by Cleveland’s civic leadership. The stadium at that time was a dump and was falling apart. With the Indians’ concession revenue gone, Art Modell was losing money. He made the move for his financial survival and he didn’t want to sell the team.
What followed this unprecedented betrayal to Browns fans, was a herculean effort to keep the team. The NFL league office in New York was flooded with letters, faxes and phone calls from jilted Browns fans. This was 1995, we didn’t have social media the internet was in its infancy. We had to make our voices heard the old-fashioned way. And the league heard their voices loud and clear. I believe Art Modell didn’t anticipate the reaction he would get by relocating the team. He saw the owners of the Raiders and Colts move their respective teams with little resistance in the 1980’s. He honestly thought he could do the same. In 1984 a domed stadium was on the ballot and was not passed by over 130,000 votes. Modell felt he was within his rights to move the team. But he wasn’t, the lease was what kept him legally bound to stay for three more years. And the sin tax extension passed with an 80% yes vote. This along with intervention from the NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue brought a compromise.
The compromise allowed Art Modell to move the team to Baltimore. The Cleveland Browns name, history and colors stayed in Cleveland. The NFL promised a team in Cleveland whether by expansion or relocation in 1999. The city of Cleveland had to build a new stadium in return. This was the birth of the Baltimore Ravens. This deal was done in February of 1996, Cleveland had to build a new stadium in six years and six months. The decision was made to tear down and rebuild Cleveland Municipal Stadium at the same lakefront location. A project like this normally takes five years to complete. The city of Cleveland didn’t have five years. The endeavor was rushed from the start.
By August of 1999, the new Cleveland Browns Stadium was opened with a preseason game versus the Minnesota Vikings. The stadium reflected the team. In September of 1998, the Al Lerner ownership group was awarded the Cleveland Browns expansion franchise by the NFL. Both the stadium and the roster had to be built in haste. The stadium was subpar and the team was even worse. The expansion Browns first two seasons had a record of 5-27. Both the team and the stadium were started on the wrong foot.
Since expansion into the NFL, the Cleveland Browns have zero division titles, only two playoff seasons and only one playoff victory. What had to happen was the total collapse, tearing down and complete rebuild of the team’s roster from the foundation to the top. From 2015-2017, their record was 4-44. That is not a misprint or a typo that was the team’s record in that three-year period. On top of that the stadium was amongst the worst in the NFL. Today the roster is very good. If this team’s roster was in any other NFL city, it would be a more respected team. But it’s in Cleveland and with that comes the stigma of the past. The Browns’ recognition must be earned on the field and that’s fair. Growing up in Cleveland, I heard the Cleveland jokes all my life. The Browns and their stadium were the butt of those jokes for the last 24 years.
That leads us up to today. The current lease the Browns have with the city of Cleveland expires at the end of the 2028 season. That means if a new stadium is built or if the current one is remodeled? The project needs to be completed by August of 2029. Now, I have no inside information or any more knowledge than anyone else on what I think the resolution will be for this issue. I can only look at the reality of the situation and come to a logical conclusion.
For several reasons, I think a new stadium will be built in the suburbs of Cleveland. I also think that the stadium will be a dome stadium. It doesn’t make economic sense to have an outdoor football-only stadium that sits empty 350 days a year. I also don’t think any new stadium will be built in downtown Cleveland. The city is well over budget on renovations of the Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse and Progressive Field. I don’t believe they have the money to help build a new football stadium or even remodel the current stadium. Mayor Bibb expressed earlier this year that the city would not financially assist with either project. The revamping of the lakefront would probably be without a football stadium. And the land would be put to a more practical use. The ideal location to build the new dome stadium would probably be in Independence OH. This is due to highway access and the central location of the Cleveland area. At the start of this year’s training camp, Browns owner Jimmy Haslam guaranteed “that the Browns will not leave northeastern Ohio”. The land in Independence is yet to be fully developed and that could be the opportunity for this project. Again, this is speculation on my part. I do like the idea of having a stadium to attract other events to the Cleveland area. Super Bowls, NCAA Final Fours, WrestleMania’s, and conventions. Any official announcements of plans will probably not be made until August of 2024. That would give the construction five years to be completed.
I am not sure how this will be paid for and that can be publicly debated. I feel this issue is more of an opportunity than a crisis. An opportunity to take the time to get right what was done wrong over 25 years ago. Putting all joking aside, let’s get it right this time.