Cleveland Browns relocation controversy
Part of 1995 NFL season
DurationDecember 1994–February 1996
Also known as"The Move"
CauseFinancial constraints within Browns ownership, team value and revenue losses under owner Art Modell, state of Cleveland Stadium
ParticipantsBrowns ownership, City of Cleveland, Art Modell, NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, City of Baltimore
OutcomeThe suspension of the Cleveland Browns franchise after the 1995 NFL season, the transfer of its assets and player contracts to an expansion franchise (the Baltimore Ravens) that begins play in 1996, and the revival of the Browns franchise (restocked via an expansion draft) in 1999
Location of the home fields for the Cleveland Browns and the Baltimore Ravens
Cleveland
Cleveland
Baltimore
Baltimore
Location of the home fields for the Cleveland Browns and the Baltimore Ravens

The Cleveland Browns relocation controversy—colloquially called "The Move" by fans[1][2]—was a controversy during the 1995 NFL season in which the then-Browns owner Art Modell announced that he intended to move the Cleveland Browns of the National Football League (NFL) from its longtime home of Cleveland to Baltimore.

Subsequent legal actions by the City of Cleveland and Browns season ticket holders led the NFL to broker a compromise in which Modell agreed to return the Browns franchise to the league. The agreement explicitly stipulated that the Browns franchise, including its history, records and intellectual property, were to remain in Cleveland. In exchange, the NFL agreed to grant Modell a new franchise in Baltimore (which was eventually named the Ravens) while the City of Cleveland agreed to build an NFL-caliber venue to replace the aging Cleveland Stadium. As a result, Cleveland Stadium was demolished, beginning in late 1996, and a new stadium was built on the site.

Since it was deemed infeasible for the Browns to play the 1996 season in Cleveland under such circumstances, the franchise was officially deactivated by the NFL in February 1996. The NFL agreed to re-activate the Browns by 1999 either by way of an expansion draft or by moving an existing team to Cleveland. In lieu of holding both a dispersal draft for the Browns and an expansion draft for the Ravens, the NFL allowed Modell to effectively transfer the Browns' existing football organization to the Ravens. As such, the Ravens are officially regarded by the NFL as an expansion team that began play in 1996. By 1998, the NFL had ruled out moving any of the league's then-30 teams to Cleveland, committed to stocking the roster with an expansion draft, and sold the Browns franchise to Al Lerner, a former minority owner of the franchise under Modell, for $530 million.[3] The re-activated Browns acquired players through this expansion draft and resumed play in 1999.

This compromise, which was unprecedented in North American professional sports, has since been cited in franchise moves and agreements in other leagues, including ones in Major League Baseball (MLB), Major League Soccer (MLS), the National Basketball Association (NBA), and the National Hockey League (NHL).

Dissatisfaction with Cleveland Stadium

Cleveland Stadium, where the Browns played until 1995.

In 1975, knowing that Municipal Stadium was costing the city more than $300,000 a year to operate, then-Browns owner Art Modell signed a 25-year lease in which he agreed to incur these expenses in exchange for quasi-ownership of the stadium, a portion of his annual profits, and capital improvements to the stadium at his expense.[4] Modell's new company, Stadium Corporation, paid the city annual rents of $150,000 for the first five years and $200,000 afterwards.

Modell had originally promised never to move the Browns. He had publicly criticized the Baltimore Colts' move to Indianapolis, and had testified in favor of the NFL in court cases where the league unsuccessfully tried to stop Al Davis from moving the Oakland Raiders to Los Angeles. However, Modell refused to share suite revenue with the Cleveland Indians, who also played at Cleveland Stadium at that time, even though some of the revenues were generated during baseball games.

In 1990, voters approved a ballot measure to build a new sports complex, the Gateway Sports and Entertainment Complex, which included a new baseball-only stadium and an arena.[5][4] Modell, believing that his revenues were not endangered, decided not to participate in the Gateway Project that built Jacobs Field for the Indians and Gund Arena for the Cleveland Cavaliers.[6] Modell's assumptions proved incorrect, and Stadium Corporation's suite revenues declined sharply when the Indians moved to Jacobs Field in 1994.[4] Soaring player salaries put additional financial pressure on the Browns' owner. Modell claimed to have lost $21 million between 1993 and 1994.[7]

Financial considerations

Art Modell in 1980

Due to the massive and relatively consistent increase in the value of NFL franchises since the league's founding in 1920, the league has a long history of owners whose net worth is largely accounted for by the value of their football teams. Even today, many of the league's clubs are owned by businesspeople (or their heirs) who, while relatively well-off by the standards of the time, founded or purchased a football team which has since appreciated in value at a far higher rate than whatever other business interests they might have originally been involved in. However, even with those considerations in mind, Modell's net worth had always been relatively meager compared to most other principal owners in the NFL, despite his longstanding influence in league circles.

The Browns' capitalization problems were systemic and dated back to their founding as a charter All-America Football Conference (AAFC) franchise by legendary coach Paul Brown. Modell was initially recruited in large part because the NFL was desperate to avoid any perception of franchise instability within its ranks, especially in the face of competition with the then-fledgling (but well-financed) American Football League (AFL). As Cleveland had been decisive in ensuring the AAFC's relative success and eventual partial merger with the older league, the NFL was keen not to lose the market once again to yet another rival league in the way it had in 1946 when it allowed the Cleveland Rams to move to Los Angeles. Modell's purchase of the team was thus approved by the NFL under conditions that the league might otherwise have rejected. It was among the most heavily leveraged purchases in league history, as most of the funds used to purchase the team were borrowed.

On the one hand, the eventual negotiation of a merger with the AFL ended the prospect of expensive bidding wars for players in an era when true free agency did not exist, thus allowing the Browns to remain competitive on the field despite a tight budget. Nevertheless, Modell spent most of his tenure as Browns owner in financial difficulty, especially as interest rates soared and the costs of operating an NFL team escalated with the value of the league's franchises. As the 1960's came to a close, the Browns appeared in the NFL's final pre-merger championship game, yet Modell's finances were so perilous that they were a major factor in his decision to lobby for the Browns (along with the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Colts) to be moved to the American Football Conference upon completion of the merger in 1970 in exchange for financial compensation from the other NFL and AFL owners. However, the $3 million payout (equal to approximately $23 million today) ultimately proved woefully insufficient to clear the team's growing debts.

The Browns' financial situation led Modell to take legally questionable measures to remain solvent. For example, he tried to transfer liability for several personal bad loans to the Browns organization, prompting one of his minority partners to sue him. As early as 1983, Modell concluded that he would never be able to pay all of his debts before his deal with the city expired.[8] The loss of revenue from the Indians hit Modell especially hard. After realizing how much revenue was lost from the Indians moving out of Cleveland Stadium, he requested a referendum be placed on the ballot to provide $175 million in taxes to refurbish the outmoded and declining Cleveland Stadium.[9]

Announcing the move

On December 12, 1994, Modell told his board that he didn't believe a referendum to raise the sin tax would pass, as the proceeds would have been used to either fund a renovated Municipal Stadium or a new stadium. Modell then informed them that if the referendum failed, he would be finished in Cleveland, and would have no choice but to move the Browns.[8]

Entering the 1995 season, the Browns, coached by Bill Belichick, were coming off a playoff season in 1994 in which the team finished 11–5 and advanced to the second round of the playoffs. Sports Illustrated predicted that the Browns would represent the AFC in Super Bowl XXX at the end of the 1995 season, and the team started 3–1, but they then lost their next three games.[10][11]

While this was happening, Browns minority owner Al Lerner was privately prodding Modell to consider moving to Baltimore. He urged Modell to contact John Moag, the newly installed Maryland Stadium Authority chairman. Earlier in the year, the league had told Moag that Baltimore would get a team (either an expansion team or an existing team that would be moved from another city) if a stadium were already in place.

Elected officials in Baltimore and Maryland were still smarting from the Colts moving to Indianapolis after the 1983 season, and refused to commit any money towards a new stadium unless the Stadium Authority secured a deal with a team. With this in mind, Moag made several calls to Modell that went ignored for much of 1995. Finally, in late July, Modell allowed Lerner to meet with Moag, provided that Lerner stress that Modell was not serious about moving. At that meeting, Moag laid out an offer in which the Browns would get the rights to a new, $220 million stadium if they moved to Baltimore. However, Moag told Lerner to take the offer back to Modell only if he was serious about considering a move.[8]

Negotiations continued in secret until September, when Moag told Lerner that if the Browns were serious about moving, "you need to act and act now." A few days later, Lerner, Modell and Moag met at Lerner's Midtown Manhattan office. At that meeting, Moag presented a memorandum of understanding that was almost identical to what he'd offered the Cincinnati Bengals a few months earlier: a deal that ultimately led Cincinnati voters to pass a referendum that built what would become Paul Brown Stadium. Indeed, some paragraphs still referred to "Cincinnati" rather than "Cleveland." Modell still had some trepidation about the deal, but signed after Moag assured him that Baltimore fans would hail him as a hero.[8]

Soon afterward, Modell told San Francisco 49ers president Carmen Policy that he was moving the Browns to Baltimore. Policy had been well aware that relations between Modell and Cleveland had become rather strained, and was secretly working with Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney to keep the Browns in Cleveland. Policy urged Modell to sit down with NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue in hopes of resolving the situation, but Modell rejected it out of hand.[8]

On November 6, 1995, with the team at 4–5,[11] Modell announced in a press conference at Camden Yards that he had signed a deal to move the Browns to Baltimore for the 1996 season.[4][12] The team would play at the Colts' former home (Memorial Stadium) while the new stadium was being built. Modell said he felt the city of Cleveland did not have the funding nor political will to build a first-class stadium.[13] The very next day, on November 7, Cleveland voters overwhelmingly approved the aforementioned tax issue to remodel Cleveland Stadium.[14]

Despite this, Modell ruled out a reversal of his decision, maintaining publicly that his relationship with Cleveland had been irrevocably severed. "The bridge is down, burned, disappeared", he said. "There's not even a canoe there for me."[15] In truth, Modell had been brought to tears when he signed the memorandum of understanding in September: he had even told Moag that signing it was "the hardest thing I've ever done" and meant "the end of our life in Cleveland." Years later, longtime Browns general counsel Jim Bailey told The Athletic that Modell was "an emotional wreck" when he signed the memorandum.[8]

Initial reaction

The City of Cleveland sued Modell, the Browns, Stadium Corp, the Maryland Stadium Authority, and the authority's director, John A. Moag Jr., in City of Cleveland v. Cleveland Browns, et al., Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas Case No. CV-95-297833, for breaching the Browns' lease, which required the team to play its home games at Cleveland Stadium for several years beyond 1995, filing an injunction to keep the Browns in the city until at least 1998. Several other lawsuits were filed by fans and ticket holders.[14][16] The United States Congress even held hearings on the matter.[17][18]

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. That game 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.[14] Browns fans reacted with anger to the news,[16] wearing hats and T-shirts that read "Muck Fodell".[19]

On the field, the Browns 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.[11] Virtually all of the team's sponsors pulled their support,[14] leaving Cleveland Stadium devoid of advertising during the team's final weeks. After the announcement, the team lost all their home games except the final, in which they defeated the Cincinnati Bengals 26–10.[20] The game itself was blacked out on television locally on WKYC, but NBC did broadcast extensive pregame coverage from Cleveland.

Settlement

After extensive talks between the NFL, Modell, and officials of the two cities, Cleveland and Modell accepted a legal settlement that would keep the Browns legacy in Cleveland, in exchange for dropping its lawsuit.

While a number of parties had already expressed interest in acquiring the Browns by this point, it soon became clear that no viable owner would be ready to operate a football team on such short notice; even without that to consider, the NFL had insisted on the replacement of Cleveland Stadium, whereas the city had no other venue that met NFL requirements for even temporary use.

Thus, on February 9, 1996, the NFL announced that the Browns franchise 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, while in exchange Modell would be granted a new franchise - the 31st NFL franchise - for Baltimore.

Modell was permitted to retain the current contracts of players and other football personnel although notably, Belichick was fired. Ironically, his successor Ted Marchibroda's two previous head coaching stints had both been with the Colts, the first being in Baltimore in the 1970's and the second being in Indianapolis immediately prior to being hired by Modell's still-unnamed Baltimore team. The name of Modell's holding company was changed from Cleveland Browns, Inc. to Baltimore Ravens, Inc.,[21] however Modell is typically reckoned to have moved the football organization, but not the franchise itself.

The settlement stipulated that the reactivated team for Cleveland would retain the Browns' name, colors, history, records, awards, and archives. It was approved by league owners after a 25–2 vote, with three abstentions. The two "no" votes were from Ralph Wilson of Buffalo and Dan Rooney of Pittsburgh.[20][22][23] The three abstentions were from the owners whose teams at the time had most recently re-located (the Cardinals, Raiders and Rams), thus notably including Raiders' owner Al Davis who had earlier publicly clashed with Modell regarding franchise moves.

An additional stipulation was that in any future realignment plan, the Browns would be placed in a division with the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals due to long-standing rivalries with those two teams.[24] 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: this arrangement put teams from Baltimore, Cleveland and Pittsburgh in the same division for the first time in NFL history.

When the NFL realigned into divisions of four teams for the 2002 season, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and Baltimore remained together in the new AFC North, while Tennessee, Jacksonville, Indianapolis (from the AFC East), and the expansion team, Houston Texans were placed in the new AFC South.

The only other active NFL team to temporarily suspend operations without merging with any other was Cleveland's previous NFL team, the Rams, who did not field a team for the 1943 season due to a shortage of players at the height of World War II.[25]

Aftermath and legacy

The Super Bowl-winning Baltimore Ravens in the White House on June 8, 2001. The Ravens won Super Bowl XXXV just five seasons after the move.

The return of the NFL to Baltimore compelled the departure of 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 drawn respectable fan support during their two seasons in Baltimore, Stallions owner Jim Speros knew his team could not compete with an NFL team, and in any case would have likely been evicted from Memorial Stadium to make way for the Ravens. Speros opted to re-establish the Montreal Alouettes, a move which effectively ended the CFL's U.S. expansion experiment.[26] They subsequently assumed the name and history of the team that previously played in the city, the Alouettes, who had ceased operations just days before the start of the 1987 season.

Focus groups, a telephone survey, and a fan contest were all held to help select a new name for Modell's team. 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 buried there.[27] The team also adopted purple and black as their team colors, a stark contrast to the brown and orange colors of the Browns.[28] The former Colts Marching Band, which remained in Baltimore after the Colts moved to Indianapolis, was subsequently renamed the Baltimore's Marching Ravens.[29] Along with the Washington Commanders, the Ravens are one of only two NFL teams with an official marching band.

Modell's move to Baltimore came amid an unprecedented flurry of similar threats — and actual moves —[30][31] that fueled 12 new stadiums throughout the NFL. The Seahawks, Buccaneers, Bengals, Lions, Cardinals, and Bears used the threat of moving to coerce their respective cities to build new stadiums with public funds.[30][31] Modell's team was one of four that actually moved between 1995 and 1997: 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 Rams would later move back to Los Angeles in 2016); and the Houston Oilers moved to Tennessee in 1997, where they became the Tennessee Titans two years later.

As with all other moves, NFL football continued to air on local television in Cleveland due to the league's television contracts. During the three years the Browns suspended operations, the NFL ordered its broadcast partners to air games featuring the Browns' two biggest rivals, the Bengals and Steelers, on Cleveland's local stations. Two official secondary markets the Browns share with another team--Columbus and Youngstown—both primarily aired games from the teams the Browns shared those markets with, with Columbus airing Bengals games and Youngstown airing Steelers games. Erie, Pennsylvania, which is officially a secondary market for the Buffalo Bills but airs many Browns games due to Erie's close proximity to Cleveland, aired more Bills home games as well as Steelers games whenever it didn't come in conflict with the Bills away schedule.

After several NFL teams threatened to move to Cleveland to become the reactivated Browns (most notably the Tampa Bay Buccaneers[32]), the NFL decided in 1998 to make the reactivated Browns an expansion team; while temporarily giving 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), this also eliminated any possibility of an existing franchise giving up its own identity for the Browns and thus prevented more lawsuits. In an ironic twist, Al Lerner—who helped Modell move to Baltimore—was granted ownership of the reactivated Browns;[33] 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.

From its beginning, the odd number of teams and the ensuing awkward scheduling was considered a temporary arrangement pending the addition of a 32nd NFL franchise. Although Los Angeles was heavily favored, it was ultimately Houston that was awarded the league's 32nd team for the 2002 NFL season. The 2002 expansion led to a major re-alignment of the NFL into eight four-team divisions. The Jaguars and Titans joined the Texans in the new AFC South along with the Colts, Baltimore's former team, who moved from the AFC East. The Browns and Ravens' division was rebranded as the AFC North. Finally, to keep the conferences equal in size, the Seattle Seahawks (who had played their inaugural season in the National Football Conference) moved from the AFC West to the NFC West.

Following Houston's return to the NFL, Los Angeles became the favored destination for owners threatening to move their teams until the St. Louis Rams finally returned to Los Angeles for the 2016 season,[34] followed by the San Diego Chargers (who had previously called L.A. home in the early days of the American Football League) one year later.[35]

Two of the players from the Browns' 1995 roster returned to Cleveland in 1999. They were Antonio Langham, who spent the 1998 season with the San Francisco 49ers and was claimed by the Browns in the expansion draft, and Orlando Brown, who played for Baltimore until 1998 and signed with Cleveland as a free agent. Each player would play only the 1999 season in Cleveland. They were ultimately the only two players to play for the Browns under both the Modell and Lerner organizations.

The reactivated Browns have had only four winning seasons since returning to the NFL in 1999, with records of 9–7 in 2002, 10–6 in 2007, 11–5 in 2020, and 11–6 in 2023, earning wild card berths in the playoffs in 2002, 2020, and 2023. Meanwhile, the Ravens have been more successful, reaching the playoffs 15 times since 2000 and winning Super Bowl XXXV and Super Bowl XLVII, to the dismay of Browns fans.[20][36] Longtime placekicker Matt Stover was the last remaining Ravens player that played for the Modell-owned Browns—he departed the Ravens following the 2008 season when the team chose not to re-sign him, finishing his career with the Indianapolis Colts.[37] General manager and former Browns tight end Ozzie Newsome (who was in a front-office role under Modell in Cleveland) remained with the Ravens until his retirement in 2018.

The move would also have an effect in Pittsburgh. Steelers owner Dan Rooney was one of two owners (alongside Ralph Wilson of the Bills) 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 due to the new Browns' lack of success. The Ravens–Steelers rivalry is considered the spiritual successor by some fans in Pittsburgh and is one of the most heated current rivalries in the NFL.[38] Since returning to the NFL, the Browns–Steelers rivalry has been largely one-sided in favor of Pittsburgh; 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. However, the rivalry began to heat up on the Pittsburgh side when the Browns defeated the Steelers 48–37 in the 2020 Wild Card playoff round.[39]

Modell continued to struggle financially even after the move. Like several other owners who had acquired their teams prior to the AFL–NFL merger Modell's net worth by the end of his tenure was primarily derived from the appreciation of his team's value, and he had relatively little outside wealth to help underwrite his club's expenses. Because of such 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 percent of the Ravens to Steve Bisciotti.[40] In the deal, Bisciotti had an option to purchase the remaining 51 percent 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.[41]

Although Modell later retired and had relinquished control of the Ravens, he is still despised in Cleveland, not only for moving the Browns, but also for his firing of head coach Paul Brown (who eventually founded the future arch-rival Bengals in 1968) in 1963. Some consider the Browns' move and subsequent lawsuits as having cost Modell a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, which is in Canton, Ohio, 60 miles south of Cleveland and part of the Cleveland television market and Browns' territorial rights.[42][43] Modell died in 2012, having never returned to Cleveland.[7] The Browns were the only home team that did not acknowledge, much less commemorate, Modell's death the following Sunday. The team opted not to do so at the request of David Modell, who feared that the announcement would be met with anger by Browns fans still upset about the move.[44]

Effect on teams in other sports leagues

Major League Baseball

Major League Soccer

National Hockey League

National Basketball Association

National Lacrosse League

Women's National Basketball Association

See also

References

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Further reading