How Art Modell’s Greed Changed the Concept of Sports Franchises

Former Cleveland Browns and Baltimore Ravens owner Art Model died last Thursday (September 6). From the response to his death, it appears that he is still remembered as the owner who moved the Browns to Baltimore, and who thus became the most hated man in the history of Cleveland (at least until LeBron James orchestrated his departure for Miami). Although Modell maintained a home in Cleveland from 1961 to 1995, he never returned to city again in his life, at least in part because of fear for his safety.

When Modell announced on November 6, 1995, that he had entered into a deal with Maryland authorities to move the Browns to Baltimore, the Browns were still one of the NFL’s most passionately supported teams. Although the Browns under Modell’s ownership (1961-1995) were never able to replicate the success that they achieved in the 1940’s and 1950’s (seven league championships), the team remained one of the National Football League’s strongest franchises right up to 1995.

The Browns had an overall winning record under Modell (.519), and they advanced to the NFL play-offs 17 times in 34 years, winning the NFL championship in 1964 with an upset victory over the Baltimore Colts. In 1994, the last full season before the announcement of the move, the team had gone 11-5 in the regular season and had advanced to the second round of the play-offs. Moreover, the Browns finished fifth in the NFL in paid attendance that year, trailing only the Broncos, Giants, Bills, and Chiefs. The zeal of its end-zone fans, known as the “Dog Pound,” was legendary.

Nevertheless, Modell insisted that he was losing money in Cleveland due to the antiquated condition of Cleveland Municipal Stadium, which the Browns rented from the city. The new arrangement with Baltimore called for the construction of a new stadium at public expense and a lease to the Browns on extremely favorable terms. Although there was a plan in place to refurbish Cleveland Municipal Stadium, where the Browns had played since 1946, Modell decided to light out for new financial pastures.

Public outrage over the proposed relocation of a popular, successful franchise like the Browns was intense. The City of Cleveland filed suit against Modell and the Browns to try to enforce the remaining years on his stadium lease, and Ohio’s representatives in Congress initiated a movement to pass legislation regulating the circumstances under which a professional sports franchise could be relocated. Such a bill, the “Fan Freedom and Community Protection Act of 1995” was introduced in Congress On December 7, and was winding its way through committee hearing when such efforts came to an abrupt halt.

On February 9, 1996, the National Football League intervened with the promise that while Modell’s team would be allowed to move to Baltimore, a new Cleveland Browns team would take the field in 1998. The current players and coaches would leave, but the team name, its records, and its history would remain in Cleveland. Whether the new Browns would be an expansion team or a relocated existing team would be decided at a later date.

While the new Baltimore team, later named the Ravens, would have all of the former Browns players and coaches, it would technically be a new expansion team, taking the place of the now-on- hiatus Cleveland Browns. (There was precedent for NFL teams going on hiatus. In 1943, the Cleveland Rams, an earlier NFL team in Cleveland, suspended operations for one season and then rejoined the NFL the following year. However, the team that came back was the team that left, and when the Cleveland Rams departed for Los Angeles in 1946, they took their name and history with them.)

Rather than face the uncertainly of seeking legal redress, Cleveland’s representatives accepted the league’s compromise offer.

However, in separating the name “Browns” and other characteristics associated with the team from the franchise that Modell owned, the NFL radically altered the way in which professional sports leagues viewed their franchises.

Traditionally, a franchise enabled it owner to field a team in a particular league. While the franchise was usually issued with the understanding that the new team would play in a particular location, the geographic location was never permanently fixed. For example, in 1877, the second year of operation of the first modern professional team-sport league, baseball’s National League, the Hartford Blues relocated their team to Brooklyn. Having drawn poorly during their first year in Hartford, they sought better economic opportunities in a city with a much larger population.

Under league rules, team relocations were normally only permitted with the consent of other franchise holders, but the Raiders litigation of the 1980’s suggested that the federal antitrust laws placed limits on the ability of leagues to restrict the rights of individual franchise owners to move their teams. Since the 1980’s, professional sports leagues have been notoriously reluctant to veto requests for relocations out of fear of anti-trust liability. (Because of its antitrust immunity, baseball does not have this worry, and in the early 1990’s, major league owners successfully blocked an effort to transfer the San Francisco Giants to the Tampa-St. Petersburg area.

When teams did move, the understanding was that not just the current players and coaches relocated, but the team name, uniforms, trademarks, past records and history all went with the team as well. When the Brooklyn Dodgers moved to Los Angeles in 1958, the records and legacy of past Dodgers like Zack Wheat, Ducky Medwick, and Jackie Robinson went with them. They were still the same team with the same past; they were just playing in a different home city.

The NBA team that began life in 1948 as the Rochester Royals has moved frequently throughout its 60+ year history, but it has always been viewed a single team that switches its home city with some frequency. The team became the Cincinnati Royals in 1957, and remained in Cincinnati until 1972 when it became the Kansas City-Omaha Kings. (In Kansas City, the name Royals had already been taken by the city’s major league baseball team.) In 1977, home games in Omaha were discontinued, and the team became simply the Kansas City Kings. So it remained until 1985, when it relocated to Sacramento. Now there is talk of moving the team to the Norfolk-Virginia Beach area. But regardless of whether the team played in Rochester, Cincinnati, Omaha, Kansas City, or Sacramento, it was universally accepted that with each move the team remained the same.

Similarly, in 1961, the American League permitted the owner of the hapless Washington Senators to move his team to Minneapolis-St. Paul and to change the team name to the Minnesota Twins. That same year, to placate Congress and the fans in the nation’s capital, the AL added an expansion team also called the Washington Senators. However, no baseball fan in 1961 understood the “new Senators” to be a continuation of the previous team with the same name. All agreed that the pre-1961 history of the Washington Senators was now part of the history of the relocated Minnesota Twins.

But the traditional assumptions were turned on their heads in agreement of February, 1996. Although Modell initially wanted to call his 1996 team the Baltimore Browns, he was willing to relinquish that desire to settle the dispute. In the February 1996 agreement, for the first time, the right to operate a team was detached from the name, colors, trademarks, and history of the team.

Technically, of course, what happened in 1996 was that Modell transferred the Browns franchise that he had purchased in 1961 to the National Football League, and in exchange he received a new franchise that had not previously existed. With his new franchise, he was also given the right to all the players, coaches, and office personnel of his old team.

There was precedent for swapping teams—in 1972, Robert Irsay, the new owner of the Los Angeles Rams, traded the team to Carroll Rosenblum for Rosenblum’s Baltimore Colts, the defending Super Bowl champions. (It is interesting that as it turned out both of these teams were subsequently moved to a different city. After several years of declining attendance in Baltimore, Irsay moved the Colts to Indianapolis in 1984, and Rosenblum’s widow, Gloria Frontiere, moved the Rams to her hometown of St. Louis in 1995.) However, unlike the 1972 swap, which involved a real transfer of franchises, the 1996 swap was pure fiction.

Since 1995, the idea that the team does not necessarily go with the franchise has gained currency in the sports world. In 2005, the San Jose Earthquakes of Major League Soccer (winner of two MLS championships) were declared temporarily shut down, and the team’s players and coaches moved to Houston where they played in 2006 as the Houston Dynamo. At the time, it was announced that the Earthquakes franchise was not leaving San Jose and would return to the field of play at some point in the future. In 2008, a new San Jose team was created, and it was credited with the entire history compiled by its namesake from 1996 to 2005.

In 2006, in exchange for public funding of a new baseball stadium, the owners of the Minnesota Twins agreed with the state of Minnesota that if the team were ever to move out of state, the Twins name, colors, trophies and history (presumably including its history as the Washington Senators from 1901 to 1960) would be left behind. Similarly, in 2008, the departing Seattle Supersonics of the National Basketball Association agreed to leave behind its team name and colors. However, unlike the Twins agreement, the departing team would retain the Supersonics’ individual records and championship banners. Although the details were not clear, it appears that the Oklahoma City Thunder (the current name of the former Supersonics) will share the history of the old Supersonics with a new Supersonics team, when and if such a team is ever added to the NBA.

Not every team has that has relocated since 1995 has followed the approach adopted in the Browns case. When the Houston Oilers left Houston after the 1998 NFL season, they initially continued to use the Oiler name and colors as the Tennessee Oilers. Even though the name of the team was subsequently changed to Tennessee Titans, the Nashville-based franchise clearly holds itself out as a continuation of the old Houston Oilers, and the current Houston team in the NFL, the Texans, makes no claim to be a continuation of the Oilers.

Similarly, when Major League Baseball relocated the Montreal Expos to Washington, D.C., as the Washington Nationals, the new Washington team laid no claim to any sort of connection with either of the two twentieth century major league teams called Senators that played in that city. Nor did it deny that the Washington Nationals of 2005 (the first year in Washington) were simply the Montreal Expos of 2004, relocated to a different city and country with a slightly updated roster.

Moreover, when the Atlanta Thrashers of the National Hockey League were purchased by an ownership group intent upon moving the team to Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, the NHL permitted the relocated team to call itself the “Winnipeg Jets,” a name used by the previous NHL team in Winnipeg, now playing as the Phoenix Coyotes. However, the NHL made it clear that the new Winnipeg team could lay claim only to the history of the Atlanta Thrashers and not to that of the original Jets.

As a matter of full disclosure, I saw my first NFL game in person in Cleveland Municipal Stadium on October 15, 1972. My college roommate’s dad had somehow gotten tickets to this game from Pro Football Hall of Famer Sid Luckman, and we watched the Bears trounce the Browns 17-0 on a cool fall afternoon. The game itself was not exactly an aerial circus. Bears quarterback Bobby Douglass completed only two passes, but he personally rushed for 117 yards and several clouds of dust. The Browns offense seemed helpless in the face of the Bears defense which was led by legendary linebacker Dick Butkus.

In spite of a dismal performance that day, I became something of a Browns fan and followed the team for the next two decades.

I first heard of Art Modell’s plan to move the Browns while speaking at a conference in Washington, D.C., the day before its official announcement. As bad as I had felt a decade earlier when Baltimore lost the Colts, I was crushed to hear the news. I fervently hoped that the NFL or Congress would intervene to keep the team in Cleveland, but that did not happen.

I was not, however, fooled for a minute by the NFL’s plan that was supposedly going to keep the Browns in Cleveland. The team that has played there since 1998 has no real connection to the old Browns, regardless of what they call themselves or what color uniforms they wear or what photos and information they place in their media guide.

Like it or not, the Browns of Marion Motley, Otto Graham, Jim Brown, Leroy Kelley, and Bernie Kosar are now the Ravens of Baltimore and have been since 1996. When a franchise moves, the whole team moves with it.

This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. Dr. Gregory Young

    As Art Modell is now being considered for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, I read this blog with special interest.

    The history of the movement of various sports franchises was compelling.

    As a season ticket holder in Cleveland in the 1980’s and now….my interest is in the history of the Browns. And, respectfully, the Browns are still in Cleveland and they never left.

    Even as Modell slipped out of the city in order to grub for dollars, the windswept stadium on the lake still stood. All that the Browns accomplished took place in Cleveland. The NFL, Cleveland and the Modells always knew that the there could never be any such entity as the Baltimore Browns. Modell did certainly make a foolish stab at such an idiotic thing… but it didn’t happen to one of the iconic franchises’ in football.

    A football franchise IS it’s history. The Baltimore Ravens never once took the field as the Browns. The Houston Oilers stopped being when the Tennessee Titans came into existence. Earl Campbell didn’t destroy his knees for the Titans. Eddie George didn’t play for the Oilers. They are, and always will be distinct entities. Does Jim Brown consider himself consider himself to be a Raven?

    What left town on that dark day in the history of the NFL was Modell, moving trucks and players who would end careers as Browns and Ravens.

    Hope springs eternal in Cleveland that Jimmy Haslam may be the owner that carries this franchise back to glory. He is a proud owner of the one and only Cleveland Browns!

    Dr. Gregory Young

  2. Gordon Hylton

    I saw my first NFL game in Cleveland’s Memorial Stadium in the fall of 1972. The Browns, in what was otherwise a pretty good season, lost to the Bears. From that point on, I followed the Browns and when they moved to Baltimore in 1996, I was disappointed, but I never doubted that the old Browns were the new Ravens.

    More on my views of the relationship between the old and new Browns can be found here.

    Art Modell was present for many of the decisions that gave shape to the modern NFL. However, I have never been convinced that he personally was responsible for any of the truly significant changes. He was not as important to the NFL in the 1970’s and 80’s as George Preston Marshall was in the 1930’s and 40’s. Modell would not get my vote for the Hall of Fame.

  3. Terry Miller

    When comparing Robert Irsay and Art Modell, Baltimore fans are oblivious to how similar they really are. Of the two, Irsay was probably more justified to move his team than Modell was. Art Modell lived the life a wealthy tycoon and depended on his income from the Browns and the Indians to accomplish this feat. When the Indians moved to Jacobs Field in 1994, Modell lost his income stream. Very quickly his financial status began to crumble. Modell had been offered a part of the Gateway project at its inception. He wanted no part of it because he would have lost the income from being the Indians’ landlord along with the concessions and loge revenues which he never shared with the Tribe. Very quickly, he went belly up necessitating a bailout in the form of the offer from Maryland. The citizens of Baltimore graciously accepted Modell and the Browns into their city. They rationalize their acceptance by saying the Browns got to keep the name, colors, and records (via a lawsuit, not Modell’s generiosity), Baltimore did without the NFL for 12 years, Cleveland came back after 3, and the politicians were to blame for not giving Modell what he wanted, when he wanted it. Forgotten by them is that Modell was offered a new stadium at the SAME TIME as the Indians and Cavs received their new facilities. Modell turned it down because he would lose the revenue produced by the Indians and he would lose control of the stadium operations. Art Modell was a greedy and poor businessman, he proved it after his move to Baltimore when he had to sell to Steve Biscotti to bail him out for the last time. The Cleveland Browns have struggled through the ownerships of Al Lerner, Randy Learner, and Jimmy Haslam. I suppose the Cleveland Browns becoming a winner and a playoff contender each year would help ease the sting of the move and the betrayal of its fans by Modell. I think the average Browns fan would also love it if the Ravens’ fans and organization would stop with its revisionist historical representation of Art Modell as being a great owner, businessman, and friend to everyone. His dire financial difficulty was of his own doing. Modell’s alternate option was to sell to a local owner. Had he done that, his status as a HOF owner would have been secured. Art Modell took the Browns from the community that adored them. That one act was enough to destroy his legacy.

  4. Charles Kupfer

    “My favorite team moved! It’s worse than any other team moves before concurrently, or since. We were different.”

    Said every fan of every team that moved.

    Owners & leagues care nothing for fandom & monetize our love of teams. It’s a one-way relationship & always was/is-will be.

    Each time an owner yanks a team, fans feel uniquely ill-treated & exceptional. None are; all deserve better.

    Got it.

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