General

What do we look for in a sports owner?

With the news that Randy Lerner is close to selling his share of the Browns to Jimmy Haslam III, I’ve started to think about this current era of Cleveland sports owners. For better or worse, the men who own our favorite sports teams often come up as a topic for debate in our sports obsessed town.

Was this always the case? Sure, Art Modell was always a target (that’s what you get for firing Paul Brown) but I don’t recall sports talk radio stations fielding many calls about Gordon Gund or Dick Jacobs in the mid-90s.

From the brash, outspoken Gilbert seemingly vetoing NBA trades by himself, to PD reporter Tony Grossi getting himself fired for tweeting mean things about Lerner, and the constant complaining about the Dolans, our current crop of owners always seem to be a topic of debate.

Quick: rank the Cleveland sports owners from best-to-worst. Done? Ok. Now, does your list look similar to this:

  1. Dan Gilbert, Cavaliers
  2. Randy Lerner, Browns
  3. Larry & Paul Dolan, Indians

I’m willing to be bet that 90% of you came up with a list looking exactly like mine. I don’t know how you’d rank them any other way.

For as much trouble as Dan Gilbert’s mouth (and his email and twitter accounts) can cause for himself, he’s far and away the best owner in Cleveland sports, no? Gilbert’s shown that he’s willing to spend the money to make the Cavs competitive. Whether it’s taking on a bad contract like Baron Davis or Antawn Jamison (Gilbert and the Cavs rank 6th in amount of luxury taxes paid) or upgrading his facilities, Gilbert clearly is willing to pay what he must to make the Cavs a first rate franchise. All of his faults aside, this alone makes him the best sports owner in Northeast Ohio.

But that’s not really saying much, look at his competition.

Randy Lerner is No. 2, not because of any great works he’s done, but simply because he’s not the Dolans. I like to think that Randy Lerner gives a crap. He’s at least willing to spend1. Sure, he’ll personally hire Eric Mangini for a complete rebuild, then panic and hire Mike Holmgren when Mangini’s rebuild goes how, well, rebuilds usually go,2 but he’s at least making moves. He may be too shy for the job or in over his head, but you at least get in the impression that he’s trying.

And the Dolans, well. What can you say? No one is expecting them to throw hundreds of millions at guys like Albert Pujols. But when you read reports that they made $30 million off the Indians last season and then spent the offseason giving money to the Grady Sizemores and Derek Lowes of the world (instead of filling their blatant needs with healthy, in-their-prime baseball players), it’s understandable that fans will get (more than) a bit frustrated. Nevermind blowing the draft for roughly a decade and then promoting the guy who ran those drafts. But hey look, Snow Days!3

So where will Jimmy Haslam III fit into all of this? If he has any sort of success, I think he’ll move straight to the top of these oh-so-important rankings. Gilbert has to worry about the fickle nature of NBA superstars and the Dolans, well, if the Tribe actually hits on their draft picks, they’re almost immediately out of the Dolans’ price range in a few years4.

But in the NFL, parity is king. What’s made the Randy Lerner era so frustrating is that the NFL is the one league where small market teams can win and thrive for a number of years5 and yet they’ve still managed to stink for a decade. If Haslam can turn this Brown and Orange ship around, he’ll be a hero.

My initial concern with the new Browns ownership is that we’re going to see yet another front office shake up. It only makes sense. If you paid roughly a billion dollars for a football team, you’re going to want to put Your People in charge of it. I can’t really argue with that.

But the last thing this particular franchise needs is another house cleaning. They just got done cleaning out Mangini-era players and are just now getting their West Coast system implemented (hooray for a full offseason! And an offensive coordinator!). If Haslam clears the deck and goes in a new direction, we’re in for a whole new rebuild.

On the bright side, Haslam is currently a minority owner in the Steelers. While that makes for easy jokes6, I like the Pittsburgh connection. Haslam said he was drawn to the Steelers for their “business acumen and conservative philosophy” which I take to mean that he’s noticed that Pittsburgh has only employed three head coaches since Richard Nixon was President7.

Former Eagles President Joe Banner will be a part of Haslam’s group, which could be a good thing for front office continuity (as GM Tom Heckert and head coach Pat Shumur are both former Eagles employees). Even if Haslam and Banner bring in their own people, hopefully they won’t stray away from the West Coast offense, so at least these last few years wouldn’t have been a complete waste.

If Jimmy Haslam III can get and keep the Browns competitive, then we’ll love him. It is that simple. Success = love. And if he’s brash and defends the city like Mr. Gilbert, well, all the better, in my opinion. Having a willingness to spend the money to get things done isn’t a bad thing either. But if he decides to clean out the front office (as is his right) and the team goes in a new direction and doesn’t become competitive… good luck. I’m not sure how much more patience Browns fans have left in them.

Also, don’t make promises you can’t keep. That never ends well.

  1. I mean, he paid $40 million to Butch Davis, Phil Savage, Romeo Crennel,  Rob Chudzinski, George Kokinis and Eric Mangini NOT to show up to Berea []
  2. I don’t mind the Holmgren hiring, but it reeked of desperation. It’s not like Lerner took his time searching, he just threw a ton of money at the first Big Name available “See! I care! Look, Mike Holmgren! The Walrus! He’ll fix it! Now leave me alone! []
  3. also, it is never good for fan morale to trade back-to-back Cy Young Aware winners []
  4. to be fair, part of this is a MLB problem []
  5. see: Packers, Green Bay and Steelers, Pittsburgh []
  6. What? Lerner sold the Browns to a Steelers fan?? []
  7. meanwhile, since the Rooney’s hired Chuck Noll, the list of Browns head coaches looks like this []

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    I agree with your list Ben and just like you write love for an owner comes out of success and unfortunately for that triumverant there really hasn’t been that much of it. Honestly the biggest failure have been made off the court or field with the people chosen to run each organization in the way of player personnel. This more then anything is what has absolutely killed the football team. Hopefully there won’t be some irony in that when finally it looks like the front office is in line moving towards something a change in ownership completely derails it. I’m not completely sold on the football teams front office so it will be interesting to see what happens with an ownership change. Hopefully Haslam will speak and be visible for people but not to much, I hope.

  • Steve

    You make brief mentions that Lerner can’t compete despite everything that the NFL does to help out small market teams. Regarding the Indians troubles you say “part of this is a MLB problem”. Actually its almost completely at the feet of MLB. In the article you link to, where no promise was actually made (another issue that the Dolans have to deal with: fans put words in their mouths, and then get upset when the result is not whatever the fans imagined the Dolans saying), it says that there is a miniscule margin for error for small market teams. Despite this, the Indians have put together some pretty good teams. How does this result in your ranking? If the Dolans are put so far behind the 8-ball, why should they be put to the same standards as Lerner, who as we’ve described gets plenty of opportunities to even just “luck” into a contending team and can’t do that, and Gilbert, who rode the Lebron tidal wave. I’ll give Gilbert plenty of credit for realizing how much of a windfall that Lebron James could be, but we have to realize there’s not much more to him than that, or getting lucky with how the balls fell with the Baron Davis lottery pick. If that pick is 8th (as was expected) and we end up with say Kanter and Knight, is everyone in town clamoring about the future of the team the way they are about Irving?

    Also, there is no evidence that Gilbert or Lerner would bring talented free agents to town if larger markets could easily outspend them, and in fact, the signings they have made show they can can’t get good players on a much more level playing field. There isn’t much there to show that the Indians wouldn’t compete if they operated in a league with a salary cap and widespread revenue sharing. We have to be much better informed

  • dan

    I have to disagree with the sentiment that “the last thing this particular franchise needs in another house cleaning.” I certainly understand the sentiment. And if the new management’s best judgment is that the best course of action for the franchise is to continue what’s going on, so much the better. But if they think that the best way to get to a winner is to start over, as painful as that is, it would be better in the long run for them to do what they believe is best than to bow to the understandable pressure there would be to continue or build on the current development plans.

    This is exactly the mistake Holmgren made when he arrived in Cleveland, and in retrospect it was a clear error. I don’t want to get into a whole debate over Mangini, but of the choice between committing to Mangini, dumping him immediately, or letting him continue for one year and then dumping him, the last choice, the one Holmgren ended up making, was clearly the worst choice. Sentiment has no place here. I understand why Holmgren was sympathetic to Mangini, but allowing that sympathy to affect his decision-making and trying a season of combining Holmgren’s plans (4-3 defense and WCO) with Mangini’s coaching philosophy (3-4 defense and incomprehensible offense) really injured the team in the long run. And Haslam keeping Shurmur or Heckert because he believes they deserve more time, if he disagrees with their philosophy, would only delay, and make worse, the inevitable confrontation.

  • Steve

    You’re absolutely correct. The Browns need stability. Haslam has a huge decision right off the bat that he has to get right, and Lerner put him in a real right spot. Which makes me wonder, if Lerner was so set on selling the team as soon as possible, why put everyone through all of this the last couple years? Why not let Mangini run the ship until you sell? Or does he still not understand that you can’t ever actually fix anything when you fire the staff every 2-3 years?

  • theherd10

    I want an owner who is 1,000% a Browns fan.

  • Ritz

    I want an owner who hires the right people and wins, that’s it.

  • dan

    Good. I have no idea if Haslam would be a good or a bad owner, but if he were anything less than a 100% fan of any team he was a part owner of, that would be trouble.

  • floydrubino

    These owners reminds me a lot of our political candidates. Trying to pick the best out of the worst. My answer is pass.

  • Chirs

    This comment was much better and more well reasoned than the column it is attached to.

  • Ritz

    Right, I think spending a billion dollars on a team makes one a big fan.

  • ClevelandFrowns

    Steve: You left out that with his post-Decision actions, Gilbert made the Cavs and butthurt Cleveland a national laughingstock, and himself an owner for whom no NBA player wants to work, but this is very well put.

    It’s one thing to post your own ranking, Ben, but to say, “I don’t know how you’d rank them any other way” is rather insane.

    Also, if you guys are really “with” Gilbert, why do you keep using this image of him as Emperor Palpatine’s flesh-eating brother? I think it works perfectly myself, of course, but your message seems inconsistent here.

  • theherd10

    That’s all I meant, what Ritz said. I typed my comment yesterday during a break on a long road trip and didn’t get to hash my comment out the way I would’ve liked. I just wanna hear him say that he is fully committed to this organization and, more importantly, keeping this organization IN this city.

  • Steve

    I’ve made it clear here before that your first paragraph sums up Gilbert to a T. It doesn’t go over well, and it would certainly narrow people’s focus on that part instead of the big picture. I figured I’d avoid it for now, but yes, you’re absolutely correct, and one of the minimum standards we should have for our owners is “acts like a grownup and not a spoiled child”.