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Cleveland professional sport team ownership: While We’re Waiting

Cleveland Indians Paul Dolan

Cleveland sports have had an interesting week. It took the continued dumb managerial move from Terry Francona of letting starting pitcher Josh Tomlin see the opposing lineup a third time to halt the Cleveland Indians winning streak. During the previous six-game streak, the Tribe dominated in all three phases of baseball (pitching, hitting, defense). It was revealed on Tuesday that Cleveland Browns wide receiver Corey Coleman might have been more involved in a New Year Eve assault than we thought as his brother and friend were formally charged. And, the Cleveland Cavaliers both celebrated their one-year championship anniversary and sent the Cleveland sporting fandom into a tizzy on June 19.

The Cavs craziness, of course, was due to the firing (he had a week left on his contract, so I’m going with firing) of current general manager David Griffin. In one fell swoop, the Cavs went from the defending champion team about to make the NBA competitive balance landscape even more laughable by trading for Jimmy Butler or Paul George to being in for certain doom of LeBron James leaving with Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving soon to follow. The truth is somewhere in the middle, but owner Dan Gilbert added undue drama during what happens to be one of the most crucial and busiest portions of the NBA offseason. Should we really be surprised though?

Gilbert does a bunch of good in his life. He has spent more than $2 billion on revitalizing downtown Detroit. He has bought up as many old, decrepit buildings as he could and turned them into attractive living and commercial spaces. Even if one accounts for possible long-term profit being a motivator, the act helps a community who needed such an upfront investment. RocketFiber is also a Gilbert investment that has helped Detroit gain the high-speed internet it needed for many of the corporate investments to even be a consideration.

However, the reports from the days after The Letter was penned in Comic Sans were that of a head-strong, crass individual who refused to allow anyone but himself get their own way. Other incidents have backed up that portrait. He got into a fist fight with a friend at a bar mitzvah.1 He fired a supposed confidant Jeff Cohen, and pushed Nathan Forbes away from influence in basketball operations despite both men continuing to hold minority stakes in the team.2

ESPN’s Brian Windhorst doesn’t paint a much better picture of Gilbert when discussing what Griffin needed to endure from him in order to do his normal functioning job over the years.

Sometimes Gilbert would insert himself into trade talks, calling another owner directly, and derailing Griffin’s plans. Sometimes he’d send scathing emails on subjects within and outside Griffin’s control. And other times he was nowhere to be found, unreachable or distant at key moments.

Gilbert’s issues are also not solely within the structure of the Cavs organization as WFNY commenter nj0 was quick to point out on Tuesday.

DOJ and HUD charge that Quicken Loans encouraged it employs to avoid compliance on FHA-insured loans. The trial is set to begin in April of 2019. By that time, we might be in the midst of a second burst housing bubble, as Quicken Loans is currently the largest participant in the FHA program.

Which makes me realize that Larry Dolan is the only Cleveland sports owner not involved in a federal investigation.

A pretty good article from the New York Times on Mr. Gilbert and Quicken.

A team owner being under federal investigation is nothing new for a fan of a Cleveland sport team. The Browns owner, Jimmy Haslam, has had his Pilot/Flying J franchise under FBI investigation for years. The allegations are that they were bilking truckers and companies out of millions of dollars and many of the claims have been settled with several high ranking officials pleading. Thus far, nothing has been able to connect Haslam himself.

Having an owner being given the blessings by the Rooney family to steer the ship of a division rival should have always been suspect. Even minor things such as uniform alterations and scoreboard changes3 have been handled with the care of a Rottweiler selecting meats from a butcher shop.

Constant turnover on the front office and coaching staff have quickly labeled Haslam as an overbearing owner with an itchy trigger finger. Even as he admits his mistake for firing the Rob Chudzinski coaching staff after a single year; it does not undo the damage of removing all possibility of competing, then firing the staff for not doing so. Haslam has even been steward of the franchise that saw him once again hire Ray Horton Jr. as defensive coordinator only to fire him after a single year.4

Much of the veteran removal and purging payroll is on the front offices under Haslam’s direction. However, poor stability also contributed to Mitchell Schwartz, Alex Mack, T.J. Ward, and others leaving the team in free agency. Not to mention not having a foundation strong enough to deal with problem players such as Josh Gordon, Johnny Manziel, and Justin Gilbert. Oh, did we mention Manziel? Yes, Haslam famously told his staff to “go up and get our guy” on draft day, and he was happy to note that advice from a homeless man and a desperate text from a free-falling Manziel were factors in his decision to do so.

There are good aspects to Haslam though. Haslam is taking a less visible role in directing the football operations, and there have been no reports indicating he is micro-managing behind the scenes. His wife, Dee Haslam, has been integrated into the business and philanthropic side of the team, and she has offered a level set of trust of the front office anytime she is asked.

The front office itself that Haslam put in place is a radical approach, which a team in the decrepit state of the Browns needs in order to challenge the old world order of the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers in the division. Football analytics have taken hold. While a frustrating part of the process was a complete deconstruction of the roster with more rookies and second-year players receiving snaps than any other team in the NFL, Haslam has continued to show his support for those efforts and acknowledged it was an accepted part of the plan (though everyone noted they had hoped to win more than one game- at least on the record).

One of the legitimate questions for Haslam going forward will be if he will be willing to spend. Despite being in the big, bad NFL with tons of revenue sharing and a hard cap, the Browns have been able to avoid spending money on players in the Haslam era. He has spent a ton on coaches and front offices members as firing regimes after a year or two puts a lot of dead money on the books, but the player roster has not seen the checkbook open until this past offseason. The Browns have had the most or second-most cap space remaining in each of the past four seasons. The money spent on active players has been pitiful: $81 million in 2016, $104 million in 2015, and $109 million in 2014. The hope is that roster teardown was part of the process and the acquisitions of Brock Osweiler (while gaining a second-round pick), Jamie Collins, Kevin Zeitler, J.C. Tretter, and Kenny Britt have helped boost the Top 51 contracts for 2017 to $145 million.5

Cleveland fans are used to charges of being a cheapskate leveled at owners too. The Dolans have long been destroyed over their inability or reluctance to boost the payroll of the Indians. For years the Tribe was near the bottom of the MLB ranks in money paid out to players (though never so low as the Tampa Bay Rays, Houston Astros, or Miami Marlins when they made a mockery of the process by having a lower payroll than they even received in league revenue sharing checks). The common refrain from the front office and ownership was that the team would spend when they had a contending club. Sadly, from 2008 through 2012 there was not a club anywhere near contention to be had.

Recent seasons have seen a change as the Dolans have lived up to their word: $93 million in 2014, $92 million in 2015, $138 million in 2016, and a projected $130 million for 2017. The Tribe has seen their record stay above .500 during this span and won the American League after adding payroll at the trade deadline for a player who might have been the single biggest reason they got to the World Series, Andrew Miller. The Tribe is still nowhere near the New York Yankees or Los Angeles Dodgers in terms of money spent, but the imbalance of revenue in MLB means they are spending a higher percentage of their money back into the team. Even better, the recent facelifts to Progressive Field utilized no public funding (in a time when the Texas Rangers and Atlanta Braves are building new ballparks of the same age).

The Indians also added a minority investor over the offseason. The arrangement seems a tad different in dynamics compared to how Gilbert treats those with stakes in the Cavs as Paul Dolan told cleveland.com’s Terry Pluto:

For several years, Dolan was looking for a minority investor. “It had to be the right person,” said Dolan.
That person became John Sherman, who joined the Indians on August 19, 2016. Dolan declined to say how much of the team is owned by Sherman, other than it’s “a minority share.”
Did he have an impact? “We now have more resources and that gave us a willingness to risk just a tad more,” he said.
Dolan said Sherman was “absolutely all for” the signings of free agents Boone Logan ($6.5 million) and Encarnacion. “I made John my partner,” said Dolan. “We talk a lot.”

Paul Dolan has been the leader who has emerged as the face and leader of the ownership group. He is not seen often, but Dolan has been quite friendly and amicable in the few interviews when he is seen. He supported the Party At Napoli’s and he shaved his head in team solidarity for Adriana Aviles. He talked about the emotional meaning of the Indians winning the American League.

For his father, Larry Dolan. He is now 86. It was Larry Dolan who brought the family into the baseball business in 1999 and put his son in charge.
“The last time we got a trophy like that together, he was my little league coach,” said Dolan. “It was a special moment.”

Dolan also explained to Pluto why he was confident in the organizational structure of the front office even through the lean years. Why he understood that they had the necessary talent and drive there to make the dynamic changes that altered the landscape of the Indians development system that has led to the current extended contention window.

“Yes, there is a temptation when you’re losing to think, ‘I gotta do something,'” said Dolan. “But over the years, other teams were raiding our front office for people. The reputation that Mark and Chris had in baseball was well known to me.
“I knew we had (financial) challenges, but I also felt we had the right plan and right people. We couldn’t abandon it.”

Dolan also was the 2016 Mayo Society Person of the Year for his work in and around the community. He is not perfect by any means though. There are some who disagree with his rebuffs of MLB commissioner Rob Manfred’s attempts to move away from Chief Wahoo as the team logo. Oh, and his younger son, Peter, is going to be a senior at the University of Michigan this fall.

Yes, there is much more stretching to be done in order to find negatives about Dolan than either Gilbert or Haslam. At least one of our professional sport franchises is under the stewardship of someone who does not make one cringe and has set up the organization as one that is being copied across their sport.

  1. Gilbert attorneys allege he was defending himself. []
  2. Hat-tip to Scott Sargent []
  3. a Tennessean making a scoreboard look like that state? cmon now []
  4. Gregg Williams is by all marks a better man for the job, but the stain of the past lives on. []
  5. Numbers courtesy of spotrac.com. []