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What's the future of Browns stadium? Some say voters should weigh in

A packed Browns football game.
Fans pack a Browns game in July 2006.

First came the rumblings that the Cleveland Browns had met with city leaders to discuss $1 billion in stadium renovations. Then news broke that the Haslams, the team's billionaire owners, had purchased nearly 200 acres in Brook Park, Ohio. Since then, representatives from the NFL franchise have reportedly met with state legislators, seeking public funding of half a billion in stadium renovations or more than a billion dollars for the construction of a football village-style stadium development near Cleveland Hopkins International Airport.

The public has watched these negotiations through news reports, periodically weighing in on social media and at city council meetings, but mostly the dealings have been brokered behind closed doors.

That system of negotiating stadium deals between private franchise owners and politicians is the norm in the U.S., but it's a broken system that can leave taxpayers on the hook for ever-increasing construction costs, said Ken Silliman, a former public servant in Cleveland and author of a book on the history of Cleveland sports facilities.

“It's broken at a national level,” he said. “We need federal legislation. Because if you try to deal with it locally or even at the state level, you're fighting long-standing practices of the sports leagues and the owners to effectively pit city against city, state against state.”

What's being considered for the Browns?

The build that is reportedly on the table in Brook Park would cost an estimated $2.4 billion, with the Haslams seeking the public to kick in about half.

“This would come down to… one of the most expensive stadiums in U.S. or world history and one of the largest public contributions that we've ever seen,” said Victor Matheson, who studies sports economics at the College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts.

The idea that the public must finance stadium builds is false, said Matheson.

SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles, which opened in 2020, cost as much as $5 billion and was privately financed.

The Haslams could pay for their capital developments themselves, Matheson said. They bought the team for over $1 billion in 2012. It’s now worth about $4.6 billion, he said, adding the increase in value doesn’t include the yearly profits.

But taxpayers have also contributed to new builds within range of the proposed football price. A new Tennessee Titans enclosed stadium is expected to open in 2027 and will cost an estimated $2.1 billion with taxpayers kicking in about $1.3 billion.

What do politicians consider in stadium talks?

What politicians must weigh against the cost of public investment are the benefits of being the home of a professional team, experts say.

A full stadium brings to Downtown from around the region fans who often grab a bite to eat before the game and out-of-towners who book hotels for big games and events like the NFL Draft, which Cleveland hosted in 2021.

But Matheson said the question economists ask is different: Is this new economic activity or are people just spending their evenings at the stadium instead of elsewhere in the city?

“Thirty years of economic research by people not associated with the leagues has tended to show that pro sports teams have little or no impact on direct economic variables like employment, like income,” Matheson said.

Part of the chess politicians play has to do with whether they can capture that economic activity for their area, said Silliman.

In the 1990s, when Cleveland Mayor Michael White negotiated the Cavs move to Downtown from Richfield, he wanted to make sure there was a net benefit to Cleveland, Silliman said.

“The main way that was achieved was by taking the then suburban Cleveland Cavaliers and moving them into the city of Cleveland,” he said.

Governmental negotiators often work in deals to ameliorate the high cost of attending games, which has become a sore spot for many who say tickets to Browns games are out of reach for the average Clevelander.

“When we were going before Cuyahoga County Council on the deal... for the Guardians, one of the council members extracted from the team a special four-person family ticket package to make it easier for families to go,” Silliman said. “So that even does come up sometimes in negotiations.”

There are issues negotiators take into account beyond the dollars and cents, he said. Pro sports fandom is a way of life in Northeast Ohio.

“It is part of who we are, and it serves as creating a national identity for the city and the region,” he said. “There's definitely an intangible benefit there that has to be considered when we're looking at reasons to invest or not to invest.”

Part of Cleveland’s sports identity is the trauma fans suffered in 1996 when then-owner Art Modell moved the team to Baltimore, scarring fans, many of whom remain devoted to a team that has had four winning seasons and one playoff win since returning in 1999.

“Probably it was the most controversial sports franchise move since Brooklyn moved to Los Angeles in the '50s,” Silliman said. “It came at a time when there was a developing outrage at sports team relocations in general.“

What is the financial impact of a stadium?

Although the move triggered a considerable amount of pain, Matheson said economists who studied Cleveland’s relocation and others like it determined that the area did not take much of an economic hit as a result.

“Study after study after study after study shows the same thing again: No identifiable impact on any of the economic variables that we're interested in — in personal incomes, in GDP and employment,” he said. “It's crushing for people's emotions and psyche, and there is a dollar value associated with that. But in terms of real economic variables, it's just not much.”

For businesses located in the current stadium’s shadow, there would likely be some economic fallout if the stadium headed south, Silliman said.

It would hurt some businesses in the Warehouse District,” he said. “But beyond that, economically speaking, the impact would be negligible.”

Should voters decide?

Matheson said he thinks the decision to spend public money on stadiums for the Browns should be made by the public.

He said that publicly funded stadium builds can be tough sells even in cities that passionately love their teams. In April, voters in Jackson County, Missouri, turned back a referendum to provide public money for stadium construction. Jackson County includes Kansas City where the Chiefs delivered three Super Bowl wins in the past four years.

“They said, ‘Hey, no thank you. We love our teams, but we don't love paying billionaires our money,’” Matheson said. “Give the voters a chance. Let's not have this done in a smoky, smoky, room away from public scrutiny.”

Glenn Forbes contributed to this report.

Stephanie is the deputy editor of news at Ideastream Public Media.