“I can’t go back and explain it to everybody. But I did not move to Baltimore after 35 years (in Cleveland) for the crab cakes.”
– Arthur B. Modell, Jan. 14, 2001, as told to the Cleveland Plain Dealer
OK, LET’S GO BACK TO the beginning. The simple fact that the NFL ever returned to Baltimore is a miracle. And, certainly, a miracle worth revisiting.
Forget about the snowy night in March 1984 when Robert Irsay pulled the Colts out of Baltimore in Mayflower trucks. Perish the thought that Bill Bidwill or Al Davis or Mike Brown or Georgia Frontiere or Bud Adams were ever honestly considering moving their NFL franchises to Baltimore. And expansion, as anyone who had any dealing with it at all will tell, was fixed from the beginning. The teams were going to go to the city that NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue liked the best.
Let’s make this very clear. From Tagliabue to Jack Kent Cooke to virtually every owner in the NFL, Baltimore was not a welcomed hamlet in the league’s lexicon. Because of its small TV market, because of its proximity to Washington and Philadelphia, because it was viewed as a “failed” football community with tiny crowds when it lost the Colts, it was a player simply because it possessed an internal will to keep fighting. There was money on the table in Baltimore, and owners could threaten to move from their existing base to Charm City because it was there and willing to be treated like a $20 hooker. The original Maryland Stadium Authority chairman Herb Belgrad was a wonderfully kind gentleman, following the mandate of Governor William Donald Schaefer (who was the crushed mayor of Baltimore at the time of Irsay’s departure) to pursue an NFL team without breaking hearts. Belgrad was only to chase teams that were already set on moving, so as to not set up another broken-hearted situation like the one Baltimore endured in 1983.
Just like Mom told you, nice guys finish last.
Baltimore’s final hope for a run at an NFL franchise was put in the capable hands of John Moag, appointed by new Maryland governor Parris Glendening in February 1995. Moag wasted no time in utilizing his small window of opportunity to find a team before the money that Schaefer had left in the state coffers was redirected toward other projects in the budget. By the summer of 1995, Moag had identified several teams that were interested in moving their NFL teams to Baltimore, knowing full well that if the move wasn’t set by the end of the year, Baltimore might never be a player again. The money allocated for stadium funding in Baltimore could very well be used by the Washington Redskins to erect a stadium in Maryland’s D.C. suburbs. Houston was already committed and marching down the aisle with Tennessee. Arizona had already moved once but it was an obvious mistake. Cincinnati had indicated some interest. Tampa Bay and new owner Malcolm Glazer were getting antsy, wondering whether a lethargic NFL community would build them a palace. And, finally, the longest of all long shots, the venerable Cleveland Browns and Art Modell were having some cash problems on the shores of Lake Erie.
Many insiders would tell you the true catalysts in the move of the Browns to Baltimore were Jim Bailey, Modell’s Executive Vice President of Administration and Legal matters, and Al Lerner, a banker, entrepreneur and Modell’s best friend and part-owner of the Browns. Bailey had the most intimate knowledge of the debt that Modell had created in Cleveland. Lerner and Bailey knew of the inherent cash flow problems surrounding the Browns, Cleveland Stadium and its parent holder, the Cleveland Stadium Corporation, which Modell had taken on in the early 1970s, ironically, to try to save baseball and the Indians in Cleveland.
By 1995, the Cleveland Indians had departed Cleveland Stadium for swank new digs 10 blocks away at Jacobs Field. The NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers were playing next door to Jacobs at Gund Arena, another state of the art facility that was leading a renaissance in Northern Ohio. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame opened its doors in early October 1995, just four weeks prior to Modell signing the deal to move the Browns to Baltimore.
Modell had a huge financial stake in an aging, decrepit Cleveland Stadium that had just lost its largest tenant – 81 home baseball games per year – to a publicly financed, luxury-box laden Taj Mahal. To make matters worse, the Indians were riding the wave of newfound enthusiasm in the community in a march to the World Series, their first in more than 40 years.
Modell had tried privately for years to get relief in the way of a new stadium. Despite the Browns enormous popularity and success during the 1980s (three AFC Championship Game appearances in four years), he was last in line to be satiated because Cleveland Mayor Michael White and Governor George Voinovich never believed he’d move.
Modell had always been a hustler who played games with money, leveraging one company against the other. Despite playing with the big boys in the back rooms of the NFL in the early days, he was truly not a rich man. He bought the Browns in March 1961 for $4 million dollars and only put a fraction of that into the down payment. Many of his business interests over the next 35 years were followed with his heart and not his accountant.
He was the king of leverage and had been for nearly all of his adulthood. “Of course I can pay you back,” was the thinking. “I own the Cleveland Browns of the NFL.”
During 1994-95, more than five million people had seen Jacobs Field and its opulence. Modell was having a hard time selling tickets to his dump, let alone skyboxes that barely had running water. And as for perks, the valet service and champagne lifestyle that big business was getting down the street 81 times per year for baseball and 40 more times for the NBA on the club level was unmatchable. He needed a new stadium and needed it fast or he couldn’t compete.
Things got so bad for him financially that during the free agency period, in the spring of 1995, he had to borrow and personally guarantee a loan for $5 million so he could pay free agent wide receiver Andre Rison his signing bonus. The Browns had come 60 minutes away from playing in yet another AFC Championship Game three months prior and Modell felt as though he was one player away from going to the Super Bowl. His coach at the time, Bill Belichick, lobbied profusely to acquire Rison. Modell realized he could never get to a Super Bowl like this.
Enter Jim Bailey.
Bailey, a former football player at Florida State and longtime confidant of Modell from the 1970s, began planting two seeds: sell or move. The Browns could no longer compete in the NFL playing at Cleveland Stadium. Modell had always held out hope that he would be “taken care of” by Cleveland and Ohio politicians, but tension was beginning to rise as debt piled up.
The last straw came in mid-1995 when, instead of passing bonds to build a new stadium for Modell, the city and state enacted a referendum to be voted on by the public to renovate the “Mistake on the Lake.” Renovating a century old stadium was hardly feasible, and not intrinsically fair for a man who helped keep the baseball team in the city in the first place. Modell wanted at least equal treatment after two years of watching baseball become royalty in Cleveland under an unforeseeable stream of revenue.
Enter John Moag.
Moag’s mandate as an appointee of Glendening was to get a team and get one quickly or the money that was allocated for stadium funding would be pulled off the books. Glendening, for all of his posturing and embarrassing fake “homer-ism” in regard to the Ravens, was constantly trying to prove himself to Baltimore, where his popularity was extremely low for a Maryland governor. Glendening was and still is perceived as a Washingtonian with interests that lie more toward the Washington beltway than the Baltimore beltway. That said, he could always rest his hat in Baltimore if he were a key player in bringing the NFL back to the city. And Moag was his man.
Moag made initial contact with Bailey in February 1995 and was immediately rebuffed. “My first phone call was flatly rejected,” Moag said.
By late July, Moag was sizing up all of his options, including suing the NFL for antitrust in the expansion process. That certainly got him attention at the league’s offices on Park Avenue in New York.
Moag enlisted Frank Bramble, a banker with Baltimore ties, to get the ear of Al Lerner. Moag brought forth the facts and figures about the Baltimore stadium situation and made it very clear to everyone that he was going to get a team. The deal was too sweet, much better than any of the existing teams were ever going to get in their current cities. Someone would snap it up.
The days of Herb Belgrad bringing crab cakes and sunshine to the NFL and its owners were over. “We had tried the carrot and it didn’t work,” Moag said. “This time we were bringing the stick.”
Ironically, it was at an Orioles game, the night of Cal Ripken’s famous 2,131st consecutive game on Sept. 6, 1995, that Moag and Lerner got serious. Less than two weeks later, on Sept. 18, Moag was in New York City with the Modells, Lerner, Bailey and initial contract ideas.
In early October 1995, here were the options of Arthur B. Modell:
- Stay in Cleveland in a renovated, antiquated stadium with the current debt service and very little financial wherewithal to compete for a Super Bowl.
- Sell the team to another interest completely, perhaps Lerner. Even in selling the team, with the current stadium situation and the debt, the team was nearly worthless because of its arid revenue stream.
- Move to Baltimore for a sweetheart deal, a new stadium and new revenue streams, keeping the team in his family for the foreseeable future. At the very least, it would make the franchise infinitely more valuable as a saleable product down the line.
Just to make everyone in the process a little nervous and to maximize his leverage, Moag flew to Arizona in early October and began paging key personnel with the Browns, the Bucs and the Bengals to a number in the 602 area code to prove he was chatting with Bill Bidwill.
Moag, no stranger to leverage and lobbying, pulled it off.