Located throughout northeastern Ohio, interspersed between Youngstown and Toledo, trickling down along Interstates 71 and 77, there exists a group of individuals who have only known Ed O’Neill to be Jay Pritchett rather than Al Bundy. Neil Patrick Harris has always been Barney Stinson; not Doogie Howser. Will Smith was never Fresh. The Dead were never Grateful. And the Cleveland Browns have never been a fumble or a drive away from heading into a weekend that will soon be experienced by those Seattle, San Francisco, Denver and New England. The Kardiac Kids live only in lore. “Bernie, Bernie” is just one of the tracks on that dusty cassette dad won’t throw away. And through 14-plus seasons of work, their team has only reached the postseason one time.
On the flip side of this coin exists are more seasoned group. They watched as the wins piled up. They threw dog bones and batteries. They used to file into Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium in the dead of winter, proudly laying claim to a seat which could only see one-third of the field. They urinated in troughs. They watched as guys named Sipe and Kosar connected for huge plays. They practiced the Reggie Langhorne and Webster Slaughter mid-air high five in their front yards.
But they also watched as Sipe found an Oakland Raider in the back of the end zone. They sat on their couches, helpless with jaws agape, as John Elway marched down the field. They leapt through their ceilings when Earnest Byner crossed the goal line only to find that he had fumbled the ball once they had landed. They received that copy of The Cleveland Plain Dealer back in 1994, the one that detailed Art Modell’s plan to move their team to Baltimore. They watched as that very team, their team, would win a Super Bowl just years after heading south.
I posed the question earlier this week: Which age demographic of Browns fans have it worse? Certainly, this wasn’t to crown anyone a “winner”—at the end of the day, we’re all in a bad place. But would it be better to be a young fan with this environment—the perpetual losing and a revolving door within the team headquarters—being all they know? A Stockholm syndrome, but for sports. Or is it better to have experienced some joy, even though the eventual outcomes were ones that should never be experienced by any fan of any team in any city. There were dozens of replies, all having solid support for their beliefs. The topic, however, still remains.
Tom Reed of The Cleveland Plain Dealer used a good portion of the last week to discuss demographics specific to the Cleveland Browns. In his findings, a recent Facebook poll documented the reach of specific fan bases by using profile information. The picture to the right depicts what counties are predominantly represented by Browns fans (brown)), Cincinnati Bengals fans (orange), and Pittsburgh Steelers fans (yellow). While the team was quick to counter with their own proprietary information and individual players were surprised by the ever-growing yellow blob that covers a substantial portion of the state, the fact remains: The Browns are purging fans. Yes, Facebook is largely inhabited by younger fans, but it is this group of individuals who will represent the bulk of the team’s fan base before too long. As the Browns continue to pile up losses and the Steelers are continually referred to as a model franchise, you end up with a cauldron full of front-runners1, stirred by what could be argued as bad parenting. The outcome, however it is sliced, winds up being the same.
“It’s not something we think about all the time, but we’re conscious of: There have been 13 or 14 years of not good football here – or not winning football, let me put it that way,” said Kevin Griffin, Browns chief of fan development. “People always tell us, ‘You have lost a lot of young folks who haven’t seen what I experienced in the 1980s.’ So they haven’t really connected to the team because they haven’t had a reason to go down to the stadium and have a good experience.”
Reed’s findings bordered on shocking. Not necessarily from a results standpoint, but from some of the quotes that questioned why anyone would root for the Browns if they didn’t have to2. As some of the responses to my Twitter inquiry stated, all it takes is one look around local elementary schools and libraries to see that the Browns are dying in terms of young fans. It wasn’t all that long ago when I stood in an amusement park-sized line to get Frank Minnefield’s autograph. Today, kids the same age I was back then are wearing coats emblazoned with that God awful Steelers logo.
When Jimmy Haslam III arrived to Cleveland, he immediately referred to the Browns as a team with a rich history and having the best fans in the NFL. He mentioned the Browns logo on the Berea water tower. He spoke of the litany of players who set records or are now enshrined in Canton, Ohio. The Ring of Honor is a fantastic idea. The plaques which line the outside of FirstEnergy Stadium are excellent reminders of the great players who once wore Orange and Brown. But nostalgia rarely works for those who had not experienced events firsthand.
Somewhere, there’s a 15-year-old boy who has seen two winning seasons of football in his home town. His father may have seen more, but he—more than likely—has fewer years remaining where he is left wondering if he’ll ever, possibly, see his team win the Super Bowl. As the father tries to explain how that crazy woman on Sons of Anarchy used to be Jay Pritchett’s wife Peg on Married With Children, they’ll both be wondering if the modern day Browns will give them anything new to replace the re-runs.
Neither father nor son has it good, but who has it worse?