Yesterday the Cleveland Browns reportedly delivered a Lou Groza jersey to the family of the Browns fan who put a joke about the team in his obituary. Yesterday, Will Burge reported that the Browns are changing many of the features of the Cleveland Browns game-day experience for the upcoming season including (wait for it) wiener dog races and drum lines. I’ll admit that I have my doubts about some of the things that came up in the game experience rumor mill, but that’s where my doubts end. Over the last couple days with these two stories, we might just have a glimpse at the beginnings of a changing of the tides in Berea.
As I said in the podcast last night, the Browns might fail miserably with a few of their game-day experience initiatives. Yes, Kevin Griffin, Browns Vice President of Fan Experience & Marketing might fall flat on his face with the wiener dog race. Fear of failure isn’t very endearing, and many people who end up being defined by failure never gave themselves an opportunity to succeed. In order to succeed, sometimes you need to take some chances. Plus, if Joe Banner taught us one thing last year, it’s that he’s not afraid to adjust on the fly. Remember that he’s the one who stepped up and nixed the “white flag” giveaway. So, if by chance the wiener dog race or the drumline are utter busts, expect another attempt to show up in its place. That’s my expectation anyway.
The one argument that I commonly hear against this stuff is a non-argument in my mind.1 “The only good PR and game-day experience the Browns need is to WIN,” they say. “Everything else will take care of itself!” It would help, obviously, but overall I don’t buy it.
I think it would be wrong for a winning football team to slack on PR and game-day experience too. Winning football games is hard. You have to draft well, organize the roster with free agents, hire exceptional coaches and then execute week-in and week-out. Game-day experience should be something much easier to figure out. It takes effort and research and a commitment to try different things until you hit a sweet spot. And then it takes the knowledge that you need to constantly pay attention and continually change things. The reason that people are so critical of the game-day experience at Cleveland Browns stadium (now FirstEnergy) is because it hasn’t changed enough. The music seems stale. The player intros seem stale. It’s true that Browns fans are a traditional bunch, but that doesn’t mean nothing should ever change.
It’s the same with PR. The Browns could have been defensive about the old pall bearer joke that hit that fan’s obituary this week. They could have ignored it, despite the fact that it became a pretty viral, national story. They also could have gone too far in embracing it and embarrassed themselves. In the end, I think they hit the mark in terms of acknowledging it and owning the story and the message. They managed to engage the story and involve themselves in a way that seemed both classy and also respectful of previous regimes.
That’s ultimately what all this comes down to. As a football team and as a sports organization the Browns have left their identity to the people talking about them for the most part since 1999. Whether it was analysts blasting organizational moves in player personnel or the handling of Colt McCoy’s concussion, the Browns let everyone talk about them rather than showing a willingness to speak to each story. When Romeo Crennel was flipping coins for QBs or Eric Mangini was moving murals in Berea, the rumor mill defined the team and what they were doing. No matter the reason, it came off uncaring or arrogant, which was further enraging to a fan-base that endured endless numbers of losing seasons.
Owning the message is about organizational leadership that cares about that part of the business and drives the organization to put effort into it. Of course all those things would be easier (IE less visible) if the team was just winning lots of football games. That’s not really the point. I’ve argued for a long time that none of these things are mutually exclusive. It seems that right now the current crop of leadership in Berea agrees.
- I don’t think it’s a straw man, by the way. I’ve heard this refrain time and again even if I haven’t quoted anyone specifically here. [↩]