The Cleveland Browns relocation controversy was the decision by then Browns owner Art Modell to move the National Football League 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 professional sports: Modell would be able to keep the Browns' existing player and staff contracts, but his team officially would be an entirely new franchise in Baltimore, later named the Baltimore Ravens. Meanwhile, the Browns' name, history, and archives would stay in Cleveland, and a new Browns team would begin play in 1999 after a three-year period of "deactivation".
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, assumed the expenses of operations from the city, freeing up tax dollars for other expenses. Also, Modell would pay an annual rent of $150,000 for the first five years and $200,000 afterwards to the city. In exchange, Modell would receive all revenue generated by the stadium. Stadium Corp invested in improvements, including 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.
Eventually, 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 for the Indians and Gund 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.
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 selected the Browns to 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 Baltimore for the first time since the Baltimore 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 angrily 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 just premiered), declined to cover or mention the protest. It was one of the few instances that Steelers fans and Browns fans were supporting each other, as fans in Pittsburgh felt that Modell was robbing their team of their rivalry with the Browns.
Virtually all of the team's sponsors immediately pulled their support, leaving Cleveland Stadium devoid of advertising during the team's final weeks.
As far as the on-field product was concerned, the Browns stumbled to finish 5-11 after the announcement, ahead of only the expansion Jacksonville Jaguars in the AFC Central. The last game the team played at Cleveland Municipal Stadium was a 26-10 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals.
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 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.
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. Realizing he would be unable to compete with the NFL, Stallions owner Jim Speros moved the team to Montreal for the 1996 season and sold it to Bob Wetenhall. The former Stallions ended up as the revived Montreal Alouettes.
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 such as Art Donovan and Johnny Unitas disowned the Colts after their move to Indianapolis and are claimed in the Ravens' history. The former Colts Marching Band, which remained in Baltimore after the Colts moved, was subsequently renamed the Baltimore's Marching Ravens. Along with the Buffalo Bills and Washington Redskins, the Ravens are one of only three 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 leave Texas to move to Memphis in 1997 and become known as the Tennessee Oilers; the team would move again to Nashville in 1998 and would be renamed the Tennessee Titans in 1999.
After several NFL teams used Cleveland as a relocation threat to become the reactivated Browns (most notably the Denver Broncos and 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). 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 six times since 2000 and winning Super Bowl XXXV 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.
Due to 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 has since 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. In fact, he is still so hated in Northeast Ohio that he was unable to attend the funeral of former Browns' kicker Lou Groza due to the backlash Modell would get in Cleveland. One writer 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.
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 due to 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 a small number of 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. The Browns lost twelve straight games to the Steelers from 2003 until 2009 and have a 4-20 record against Pittsburgh since the return of the Browns in 1999.
Effect on teams in other sports leagues
The NFL's deal with Cleveland set a legal precedent with other sports teams. 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.
In December 2005, the San Jose Earthquakes of Major League Soccer 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.
When the Seattle SuperSonics moved to Oklahoma City, Oklahoma in 2008, the owners agreed to leave the 'SuperSonics' name, logo, and colors in Seattle for a possible future NBA franchise; however the items would remain the property of the Oklahoma City team along with other "assets" including championship banners and trophies. The team was subsequently renamed the Oklahoma City Thunder. Both the Thunder and any future Seattle NBA team will also "share" the SuperSonics' history.
- Baltimore Colts relocation controversy
- History of the Cleveland Browns
- History of the Baltimore Ravens
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