False Start: The Big Squeeze

The book "False Start" by award-winning sportswriter Terry Pluto takes a hard look at the first five seasons of the new Browns franchise and chronicles the backroom deals, big-money power plays, poor decisions, and plain bad luck that have dogged the team since Art Modell skipped town in 1995. In the book excerpt below, Terry takes a look at "the Big Squeeze" put on Al Lerner and other potential Browns owners by the NFL.

The passion of being a Browns fan and the anguish that goes with it are worn by us like a badge of honor. We are dealt the firing of Paul Brown, the losing at Three Rivers Stadium in every way possible. There is The Drive, The Fumble, The Move, more years of struggling as an expansion team . . . and yet, we always come back for more pain and suffering. . . . Most of us have so many years invested in the Browns that we simply can't walk away even if we wanted to. I tried to root for another team during The Lost Years when the Browns didn't exist, but I couldn't.

—Chuck Campbell


There was no conspiracy, it was just greed.

Remember that when you hear the stories about Art Modell, Al Lerner, and the Browns . . . how Lerner would help Modell move the team to Baltimore . . . the NFL would then give Lerner an expansion team . . . two cities would end up with two new stadiums. Everyone would be happy, especially the NFL, Modell, and Lerner.

I'd like to believe that scenario just because it's easy for me to think the worst of the NFL. But I know that Lerner was shocked by the backlash against him after his role in Modell's move. He never saw it coming. He should have known there would be a major public relations problem for anyone near Modell's bolt to Baltimore. I used to think that the NFL wanted Lerner to become the owner of the new Browns because he was one of the boys, a part of the league's inner circle. I was partly right. They did want Lerner. But not out of friendship. They thought he could pay the most money for the expansion franchise.

Money. Money. Money.

I wrote about that for nearly a year when covering what remains the most depressing story in my 26 years as a sportswriter—the Browns move, and the NFL's extortion plan to squeeze every dollar out of the new Browns owner. Even Lerner was surprised by their greed, and he'd known these guys for more than a decade as a minority owner of the Browns and a friend of Art Modell.

False Start: How the New Browns Were Set Up to Fail ($19.95 / hardcover /163 pages).

Award-winning sportswriter Terry Pluto takes a hard look at the first five seasons of the new Browns franchise and chronicles the backroom deals, big-money power plays, poor decisions, and plain bad luck that have dogged the team since Art Modell skipped town in 1995.

The book is available at Northeast Ohio bookstores and online from Amazon.com.

For more information, call the publisher at 1-800-915-3609 or visit their website at www.grayco.com
 

"Al thought the league should set a price for the team, then identify which groups could pay it—and from that, pick whom they thought would make the best owner," Carmen Policy told me.

The NFL thought the best owner was the one willing to pay the most. They didn't care if the guy had Cleveland roots, or if he came from Iraq. Just bring the cash, baby.

I went to the NFL meetings in Dallas, where the league began the hustle of the Browns. Dallas owner Jerry Jones said the man who ended up with the new Browns "would own a piece of Americana!" He also compared them to the New York Yankees.

Some Browns fans thought the community should own the new team, much like the Green Bay Packers. The NFL would rather cancel the Super Bowl and give back all that TV money than allow another civic group to own a team. Now the league has laws against it. Besides, if a city owns it, how can the team threaten to move if it wants a new stadium or a better lease? A team run purely for the good of the fans? Sounds communist to these guys.

Know what price they first put on the Browns?

A BILLION DOLLARS!

"A billion is not unfair," said Alex Spanos, owner of the San Diego Chargers. "I know it's worth a billion, but I don't know if anyone will pay it."

This meeting was held at the Dallas Hyatt Airport. I walked through the lobby, talking to the owners about the Browns. I had never been around a group that seemed so self-important and had so little regard for the customers. Along with some other reporters, I was asking them about what they wanted from the new Browns owner. How would they decide between the groups bidding?

"It will go to the highest bidder," said Tampa Bucs owner Malcolm Glazer.

Spanos went on and on about all the groups being from Ohio, then added, "Realistically, the price is insignificant. The main thing is the Cleveland fans will have a team. The only question is, who will be the highest bidder?"

I was ready to scream.

All the groups were NOT from Ohio. Howard Milstein was a New Yorker who owned the New York Islanders of the National Hockey League. Another was Jeremy Jacobs, who was a New Englander who owned the NHL's Boston Bruins.

All the groups were from Ohio? Were they just oblivious, or lying? It's like these guys thought they could just say anything because they owned an NFL team, so that made them right. Their pomposity and arrogance was appalling, even by the bloated standards of pro sports.

Even Al Lerner, who knew these guys, had trouble dealing with it.

Before he was granted the franchise, Lerner said, "In hindsight, the owners will see a number [bid] they like best and decide that person was brilliant."

So true.

Something else: If the price was "insignificant," then why was the bottom line the highest bidder?

As I wrote on July 28, 1998, "What if the highest bidder turns out to be an idiot?"

Obviously, the NFL didn't care.

Here's why they wanted $1 billion:

  • Each franchise (except Modell's) was going to split up the expansion fee. Every team would receive 1/30th of the price. For a billion bucks, each team would get $34 million. At $500 million, it would be $17 million. Big difference.
     
  • The higher the price for the Browns, the more it inflated the value of their own franchises.
     
  • In 1993, the NFL charged Jacksonville and Carolina $140 million each to join the league. Five years later, they were asking for a billion? They figured it would be a minimum of $500 million.
     
  • The league said each team would receive about $70 million a year in TV revenue, so why not ask for a billion?
     
  • Browns fans were so excited about any team coming to town, they had bought more than 50,000 season tickets and leased 90 of the 116 luxury suites by the summer of 1998. That was with the new stadium not complete and no coach or player or front office in place for a team that was to start play in the fall of 1999.

If the NFL had even one drop of compassionate blood for Browns fans, the league would have picked an owner at that meeting in July of 1998—especially since it knew that Lerner was its man. That would have at least given the new owners about 15 months to put together a team before the first game. But no, these guys were determined to drag it out for a few more months, and drive up the price. Besides, every time a new group applied, they had to submit $150,000 just to be considered. It may sound like pocket change in the billion-dollar world of the NFL, but you had a feeling some of these guys would roll up their sleeves and stick their hands into a public toilet if they spotted a nickel at the bottom.

Now it's obvious that the league favored Lerner almost from the moment Modell moved. And the reason also is obvious: He had the biggest bankroll, worth $2.5 billion. He also was a guy whom they knew and believed would make a good business partner. He understood the game. Not on the field, but in the backrooms and boardrooms. For this reason, I'm not going to get into a debate about all the other ownership groups and their merits. In retrospect, Lerner was the best man. But not just because he had the most money. He also had the right attitude and ego for the job, along with that available stash of cash and tremendous connections with the Cleveland business and political structure. He was a guy who got things done.

That could have been determined at the first meeting in July, and it would have given the Browns a few more months to prepare for the 1999 season. Would it have made a difference? Who knows? Maybe everything would have been the same. Maybe Dwight Clark would still have been the general manager, Chris Palmer the coach, and the drafting and scouting situation a mess. Browns fans deserved better. They were entitled to their team and new front office having plenty of time—say 18 months, at least—to be in place before the first game.

But the NFL didn't care about that . . . or you!

Lerner sensed the situation was not right and would lead to problems.

"We were clearly the best group, but we almost walked away from the bidding," Carmen Policy told me. "Al kept saying it shouldn't be about just getting the highest bidder, but the best owner. But the NFL was basically saying, ‘We want the best ownership group, and by the way, you also have to pay the most money.' That bothered Al."

Policy was confident they'd end up with the team. He also believed it would be a great investment, regardless of the final cost.

He kept telling Lerner, "This is the way the NFL works. But Al, once you're in, you're in. Within three weeks of getting the team, the price you paid will be meaningless except for accounting and tax purposes. The value of the franchise will increase, but more importantly, you'll get caught up in it. This is an emotional narcotic. The idea that you can do without it after you taste it—that's just not acceptable."

It's hard to believe Lerner was serious about withdrawing.

Frustrated?

Of course.

But he was a competitive man, and he certainly didn't want to lose out for one of the biggest, most public business deals in Cleveland history to Larry and Charles Dolan, Dick Jacobs, Howard Milstein, or anyone else. He also had enough exposure to the NFL and the Browns through his association with Modell to know that Policy was right. You do get hooked on the games, the season, the action, and the pressure of winning and losing. No other business quite matches it.

Policy had met Lerner only once before becoming a part of Lerner's group. In fact, Policy didn't even recall the meeting, it was brief and Lerner was with Modell. Policy was put in contact with Lerner by Dennis Swanson, president of ABC Sports. Policy was trying to help his daughter find a job in the TV business. Swanson was a friend of Lerner's. Swanson told Lerner to go after the Browns, and he mentioned that Policy was having a difficult time in San Francisco, where the 49ers ownership situation was in flux. Swanson suggested to Lerner that he recruit Policy. He then told Policy, "You need to call Al Lerner. There is no better place to be for football than Cleveland. California can slide into the ocean and Arizona can become beachfront property, but they still will be talking football in Cleveland."

Policy knew Lerner had money and clout with the NFL.

"Not only that, but I was aware—like most NFL people—that this Al Lerner had bailed out Art financially three or four times," said Policy. "I knew the commissioner [Paul Tagliabue] had once done some work for Al when Paul was a young lawyer. I knew how important ownership was to the success of a franchise, and with Al behind us, we'd never have to cut a corner."

It took several weeks and a few meetings, but Policy eventually left the 49ers front office to join with Lerner. They recruited Bernie Kosar to be a spokesman, and also to erase the scarlet letter of having been with Modell. Cleveland mayor Mike White endorsed the group. At the end of August 1998, there was another NFL owners meeting. There were seven bidders for the Browns, and all seven appeared in front of the NFL owners. They still refused to select a group. So what if training camp for the expansion team would start in 10 months? These guys were in no hurry. The Browns weren't their team. They didn't care that they were making it impossible for the Browns to be a contender for a few years by their delays that would rob the new owners of a chance to hire a top-notch front office and coach. In fact, they would never say it publicly, but they wanted the Browns to flounder. They were embarrassed by how Jacksonville and Carolina became contenders in their second seasons. They were doing everything possible to stack the competitive deck against the new Browns.

Modell was vehemently opposed to Lerner. He believed Lerner abandoned him after Lerner began taking some heat for the move. Modell was very upset when it appeared Lerner was distancing himself from the moves he orchestrated to help Modell make the right contacts in the Baltimore power structure. Modell believed Lerner was pointing the entire finger of blame at the new owner of the Baltimore Ravens, and Modell kept telling people, "Wasn't it Al who advised me to move to Baltimore?" Modell wondered why Lerner was suddenly getting a free pass from most of the Cleveland media. Modell also liked the Dolan group, headed by the brothers Charles and Larry Dolan. He introduced them to Bill Cosby, who had an interest in owning a piece of an NFL franchise. Supposedly, the NFL was very excited about the possibility of minority ownership, even a small percentage as would have been the case with Cosby.

Meanwhile, Lerner thought Modell should be grateful for the help he received and the Baltimore deal, and that Modell had no reason to complain about anything. Lerner realized that he was left in Cleveland to take the heat for Modell, who had moved to Baltimore. Maybe both men were right about each other. Certainly, Modell didn't like the idea of Lerner owning the new Browns because his old friend would suddenly be the new hero in Modell's old hometown. Also, Modell had to fear Lerner's bankbook. The new Browns would play in the same division as Baltimore, and Modell hated the idea of losing to Lerner. He lobbied owners against Lerner. He spoke to them as a group, and to individuals informally. Lerner had to consider this an act of betrayal. After all, Lerner did help Modell stay alive financially in Cleveland, and then Lerner helped facilitate the move to Baltimore so Modell could keep the team. And this was how Modell paid him back?

On September 7, 1998, the NFL had yet another meeting, this time in Chicago. The final two bidders were Lerner and the Dolan family. Lerner bid $530 million, the Dolans $525 million. Lerner set a record for buying the most expensive pro franchise in the history of American sports. The previous high was $350 million paid by Rupert Murdoch's Fox Group for the Los Angeles Dodgers baseball team. That was on March 19, 1998.

Several teams have since sold for more than the Browns, but the NFL found a way to run up the price to a record level. Excluding Modell, the other owners each received $18 million of the Browns' expansion fee. After opposing Lerner for months and even early in what became the final meeting, Modell finally voted for Lerner. The first four votes were 21 for Lerner, seven for the Dolans, two abstaining. NFL rules required 23 of the 30 teams to vote for the same bidder. After Modell finally saw that Lerner would eventually prevail, Modell gave a brief speech in favor of his old friend, and Lerner was approved 29-0, with Oakland abstaining.

Al Lerner had the Browns, and he also had more problems than he ever imagined.


Excerpted from the book False Start: How the New Browns Were Set Up to Fail © 2004 by Terry Pluto. Reprinted with permission of Gray & Company, Publishers. Available at book stores and online from Amazon.com.
 

 


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