Cleveland Browns stadium funding is a tale of taste and technicalities

First Energy Stadium 01_exterior_southeast

01_exterior_southeastThe Cleveland Browns’ proposed stadium improvements are already a hot topic among Cleveland Browns fans and Clevelanders with a stake in government money. There’s a lot of fan-on-fan bickering going on already and it doesn’t show any signs of slowing until some form of resolution is reached and a deal is announced. While I like the Cleveland Browns’ plan to refurbish the stadium – and even before I know what the Browns are asking for in terms of financial contribution from the city – I’m uneasy with the thought of having the city pay for stadium improvements. Let me explain why. I was talking this over with a friend of mine and after we talked about it and agreed on our feelings, he put it perfectly. “We already paid the ransom, but we never got the hostages back.”

None of what I’m saying is the current Cleveland Browns’ fault. Jimmy Haslam, Joe Banner and Alec Scheiner are not to blame in the slightest for anything that I’m going to talk about here. The fact is though, that this stadium became obsolete1 without ever having delivered during its initial tenure. The stadium has been bland and the product on the field has probably been even worse. Even as Atlanta is up in arms about replacing Turner Field by moving the team to the suburbs, how many playoff series has that stadium hosted? The Browns have played one playoff game since returning and as we all know they didn’t play it in Cleveland as they lost to the Steelers 36-33 giving up 22 fourth-quarter points.

And without sounding all “woe is me” – because that’s not what this is about – I was trying to figure out what had me so uneasy about the prospect of paying more money for a stadium and that’s what it came down to.

I believe the Cleveland Browns are trending in the right direction right now, but it seems crazy that they’ve earned the kind of goodwill that goes along with extreme fan support for capital investment in a stadium that hasn’t been short on profits for the Lerner family. Those same profits were analyzed exhaustively as a purchase price was determined and agreed upon by Jimmy Haslam.

Of course there are more technical ways to look at this and I’m sure a great many2 attorneys will do just that before it’s all said and done. There’s a lease that will be interpreted and over-interpreted and ultimately parsed by many legal minds before an agreement or resolution is finalized. So this isn’t about trying to analyze it from that standpoint.

This is about trying to explain to the Cleveland Browns why even common sense improvements to the stadium are a tough sell for Cleveland Browns fans. It’s obviously not all bad news for Banner and the Browns. Tickets are a surprisingly easy sell, thankfully for them. Until such time as they’re able to sell Browns fans playoff tickets, it sure would be nice if the Cleveland Browns would continue to invest their own profits back in the team and facilities that make so very much money for them.

And let me finish with this. Feel free to ask for a whole new building after you win a Super Bowl. Hell, ask for two. Maybe one for the east side and one for the west side? We’ll probably say yes.

  1. more obsolete? []
  2. or many great? []
  • BigDigg

    I’ll wait to hear the details on how they propose to pay for this before feigning too much outrage, however I’ll add that the new regime seems a bit too PR savvy to soak the city here. Particularly given how seemingly minor and unnecessary the improvements seem to be. The stadium isn’t anything fancy however it’s not a dump. We’re not a city that’s fiscally sound enough to be wasting money on these kind of projects.

  • BenRM

    I thought Joe Lull did an excellent job covering this issue over the weekend. Some of the lease terms he read seem pretty unambiguous, for example updates to the scoreboard are specifically mentioned.

    I understand that politicians need to do what they “need to do” and make a stink out of this to appease their constituents. But it sounds like there is very little doubt that this will happen and that, given the terms of the lease, it SHOULD happen.

  • mgbode

    not only that but the current live environment needs to be kept up in order to keep the Browns relevant moving forward especially since they have struggled for so long.

    the Browns have actually done a good job at keeping the overall costs to the city down compared with many other stadium deals. CBS is barebones (though good structure – good sitelines, etc.).

    it stinks the city is weak economically but it is something that does need to be done and the terms are already in the contract. the Browns will pay a portion and the city will pay a portion.

    this all feels like the hand-wringing over the city paying Lerner money that it had already set aside for the team and was contractually obligated to give for maintenance. it’s a non-issue.

  • Steve_Not_Chad

    I liked that Lull stated how if the sin tax isn’t renewed, people aren’t going to see any drop in the price of alcohol and tobacco.

  • Steve

    The “hand-wringing” and politicians doing “what they need to do” is far from without merit though. Clevelanders are getting screwed in this deal. Sure, they’re going to take it no matter because of the contracts, but they should be speaking out, and doing what they can to prevent similar contracts in the future. It is an absolute travesty that billionaire trust fund babies can pass the expenses of their toys onto broke cities.

  • mgbode

    Clevelanders are not “getting screwed” as it is part of the price to have a professional team. Yes, they can (and should) continue to fight what they can to keep the costs down during negotiations, but doing so when the bill comes due does nothing but create social class angst (which they will try to turn into votes).

  • Steve

    It is only the price of professional teams because the billionaires have found the public to be a weak opponent when holding cities for hostage. And the billionaires only got bolder. The original publicly-funded stadiums used to be built as a source of civic pride and were multi-use facilities. Now each stadium is becoming more specialized towards it’s one specific use (albeit still able to hold a concert or other event) and franchises try to pass off bald-faced lies of them being profit centers for the city.

    Maybe there is a social class angst, but I think that comes from other more serious problems, like people not understanding that the Gateway project nearly lead to the bankruptcy of the Cleveland Public Schools.

  • Steve

    If there is any social class angst, it’s because of the manipulation of the billionaires who will throw anything they can at the wall to see what sticks as they continue to try to pass off their costs to someone else. Bully for them for being successful, most of them didn’t get rich accidentally. But cities like Cleveland shouldn’t have put in the position in the first place to take on hundreds of millions of someone else’s costs.

  • BenRM

    Let’s not pretend the city was some rube without support or representation when the lease was signed.

    If you have beef, it’s with the people who agreed to the deal, not the people seeking to enforce it.

  • The Inferno

    I love the people that waste time complaining about this, but pay 2% higher on their mortgage than they probably should and don’t put time into really helping themselves actually saving money.,

  • The_Matt_Of_Akron

    Agree that Clevelanders should be “doing what they can to prevent similar contracts in the future.”

    Disagree that we “are getting screwed in this deal” and “should be speaking out.”

    We wanted football back, and were overeager to binge. We’re now suffering the hangover of our decision.

  • Kildawg

    The only plausible way the city should contribute some money is if seats could be added in the near future. If I understand correctly, the renovations would actually reduce capacity to around 68K.

  • Harv 21

    I think First Energy Stadium is badly obsolete considering it is relatively new – it was born with basic problems like poor planning for crowd movement in and out, the sound system is poor in areas, etc. But I don’t get the connection between playoff appearances and public funding of improvements. The facility is usually close to sold out, and a playoff appearance may bring one additional game to the downtown economy, or may not.

    Seems to me the question is: of what benefit to the general public are the improvements? A decaying stadium is certainly an eyesore, a civic joke, etc. A beauty like Jacobs Field set where many pass or drive by enhances in indirect ways. But this meh thing is parked all alone on the lake where no one just happens by and I don’t know what a facelift will do for the taxpayers as a whole, as opposed to Browns fans and ownership. Right now I really lean against any significant public contribution. The loss of a NFL franchise forced the public outlay of hundreds of millions. The need to make the stadium feel right should not.

  • bupalos

    Thank you. The degree of stockholm syndrome exhibited by fans and cities is disturbing here, and it’s precisely what perpetuates these hostage situations. It needs to stop, and cities that are threatened need to try some offense instead, making a more serious concerted push at the antitrust exemption. There is professional football in Cleveland because it’s one of the most profitable locations for professional football. It was gone for a while not because it wasn’t viable without civic money (laughable) but because the owners, presented with the Model opportunity, deliberately decided to shoot a healthy hostage. The Colts and Oilers were a good start but slightly more ambiguous since they were less successful markets. Shooting the Model-mismanaged Browns in their healthy, profitable market sent an unmistakable message and led to billions and billions of public dollars being shoveled all over the country into owners’ pockets.

    Now there is a follow-on generation of owners that have assumed civic money in the franchise price, so they have a powerful incentive to try and keep the NFL’s hostage economy intact. These hostage situations are predicated on the idea that these owners have ‘better places to go,’ and they seem to always preserve a hot landing spot (currently LA??! srsly?) just for this rhetorical purpose. But it’s increasingly clear with teams moving out of Baltimore, Houston, and Cleveland only to move back into Baltimore, Houston, and Cleveland that the markets are the markets, and the NFL has to be there. It will be interesting to see not just here but around the country if municipalities go ahead and call the bluff this time, and whether the owners have anymore appetite for this shell game if it looks like the crowd is wising up and maybe even going to alert the authorities.

  • elf

    Agree with your points. My big thing is your last point…win something before you’re looking to spend money on 2 exaggerated big screen TV’s and an easier way to walk around the stadium. If you choose to do this on your own dime, no problem. That’s fine. Knock yourself out. Don’t ask the people to pay for these items, which, to me, are extravagant and not necessarily needed (will get to that in a second). It has been proven, that these types of investments do not pay back to the cities where they’re built. Plenty of research out there to prove this. These owners are billionaires and are living off of public money.

    But, realize that if you make all these improvements and still put crap on the field, people will stop coming to watch your big screens and go up and down the escalators. If you’re depending on public money to fund your investment, the pressure is off to put a good product on the field. If you put your money where your mouth is, you better be putting a good team on that field to pay back your own investment.

    As for the current stadium, I’m not necessarily sure where all the stadium hate is coming from. I’ve had season tix since 2003 and found it to be a great, more traditional (outdoor, real grass) stadium to watch a game. Every seat works. To qualify this statement, I’ve been to other stadiums (Bengals, Steelers, Redskins, Indy) and I’d rate ours ahead of all but Indy. BUT, Indy feels like you’re going to a shopping mall where there happens to be a game going on inside. Maybe a personal opinion, but when I go to a football game, it should be a football game…not a shopping mall. So, I think everyone’s over doing the “we have a crappy stadium” bit…

    Should it be easier to move around? Sure. Fine. But it has not hurt my game day experience. The horrific play of the team I’m watching has.

  • Kevin V. Rogers Jr.

    I understand the sentiment, but this is a very poor reason to oppose the “modernization.” While it’s easy to bristle at the thought of public money being spent for the renovations, the fact is that city money is required under the lease. The City is required to pay for maintenance and improvements to the stadium by the terms of the lease. This includes replacing items when they reach the end of their useful life or become obsolete. Many items included in the plan unquestionably fall into this category, and in fact, there is an allocated dollar amount schedule in the lease. From this standpoint, it’s actually a minor miracle that the Browns are willing to invest so much money for improvements to a stadium that they do not own and are not required to. At the same time, much of the improvements will increase advertising revenue that the Browns get to keep entirely. My most fierce objection to the plan is the decrease in over 5,000 seats from the Upper Dawg Pound and West End Zone. These are good and affordable seats that either will not be replaced or will be replaced by much more expensive seats. By the way, the Browns are eliminating these seats to increase revenue from scoreboard and other advertising. The City should demand that some or all of these seats remain and require the Browns to alter the plan accordingly.

  • Kevin V. Rogers Jr.

    There is nothing the City can do to unilaterally change the terms of the lease now. The fact is that it’s an awful lease to the City but we were so desperate to get the team back that the elected officials at the time agreed to it. The best option is to negotiate and find a reasonable agreement with the team.

  • mgbode

    honoring a contract != being a hostage.

  • Steve

    I get that part. The contract will be honored for better or worse. Being in the position to sign that contract is where they were held hostage.

  • Steve

    That’s absolutely correct. My beef is completely with the idiots (in Cleveland and many other major league sports town) who sign these awful deals for the city. But that’s how a lot of politicians work. The guy who built the new stadium gets credit. The guy who has to dig through an empty box for funding for the schools in 10 years gets ripped.

  • mgbode

    no doubt the NFL used our desperation to their advantage there. still, we don’t have nearly the worst stadium deal (Cinci cost $555mil just to build PBS and they have similar maintenance/enhancement built-ins).

    regardless, whining over a deal 1/2 through that deal does noone any good. it’s done. it’s not changing and this is just a matter of politicians using public sentiment to their own advantage, which is just as bad.

  • Steve

    That’s the attitude of the party in power all the time – that being upset and speaking up won’t change a thing. But change has to start somewhere. A good place as any is recognizing how bad these deals are for cities.

  • Steve

    We were getting football back whether or not we binged. The billionaires took us for fools.

  • Kevin V. Rogers Jr.

    The deal is as bad as the one you negotiate and agree to. Nothing happens in a vacuum and philosophical generalizations don’t accomplish anything in real life.

  • mgbode

    not true. we likely would have been able to get a better deal if we were willing to be patient but to get a team we HAD to finance a stadium to get the team back. that was the NFL mandate and they weren’t backing down as that was their main play. we also built a relatively cheap stadium compared to other facilities.

  • Steve

    That is simply not true, it’s just the message the NFL and other sports leagues hammer down, because local politicians, who worry about the present and not the future, buy into it.

  • Steve

    That seems pretty non-responsive.

  • mgbode

    here are the facts:

    the NFL was reaching the apex of it’s popularity in the mid-to-late 90s, early 00s. it had successfully gotten Carolina & JAX to build new publicly funded stadiums. it got Houston & Cleveland to LEAVE well-supported areas in order to get new stadiums built and to drive in the fear to everyone else in the country that you build it or they will leave it.

    there was absolutely no way that Tags was going to let Cleveland get a team back without a stadium built for it. the NFL didn’t need Cleveland. they wanted it, but it wasn’t a need. however, they did NEED that fear for other cities. they would have lost it all if they buckled to our town.

  • mgbode

    recognizing that financing a stadium does not have the intended positive economical effects for a city is just fine.

  • Steve

    Absolutely agree that the NFL needed to establish that fear to get cities to pony up. But that study doesn’t have a control group. What would happen if the NFL couldn’t find a city to pay off a billionaire’s expenses?

  • Steve

    We’re on the same track. I’m not suggesting that the city breach the contract, but to speak up against, and not sign, any similar contracts in the future.

  • mgbode

    ok. if every city in the country said no, then, yes, it would have shifted the leverage. that was not the case though. at all. Cinci, Minnesota, NYC, etc. all were ponying up to the table with stadium deals.

    because of all of those cities (which eventually built – and there are many more I didn’t list), the NFL was not allowing Cleveland a team w/o a stadium is my point. it was better for the NFL to not have Cleveland or a team at all than to give them one w/o a stadium (and SA, Portland, OkieCity, or someone would have ponied up if they really needed a city to land in).

  • mgbode

    yeah, we just seem to disagree a little on what could have been done at the time this particular deal was signed is all.

  • bupalos

    Said tony soprano

  • mgbode

    at least I get to be Tony :)

  • bupalos

    I think this is already largely recognized. But there is plenty good reason to remind everyone how these contracts came to be and to keep “whining” as loudly as possible in order to change the atmosphere that makes the NFL’s hostage economy work. They are still running this scam, currently looks like buffalo public dollars are in the crosshairs, with LA rather implausibly playing baltimore.’s role in this iteration.

  • Steve

    The only real option was LA, and it’s going to be an uphill battle to publicly finance a stadium in California. Those other cities are just begging to duplicate the issues you have in Jacksonville, which is now giving away home games to London. I’d have, and still would, call the NFL’s bluff.