The Browns’ move to Baltimore and the Colts’ move to Indianapolis and contrasted in this expertly reported analysis of the NFL’s era of franchise free agency.
In the early days of the NFL, franchise moves were common. Pro football was a new product and teams that couldn’t make it in one city would try their luck elsewhere, perhaps flourishing in a larger market as the Decatur Staleys did when they moved in 1921 to become the Chicago Bears.
After the 1940s, however, franchise moves became a rarity until the 1980s. Then the Raiders moved from Oakland to Los Angeles in 1982, following a bitter row with the NFL. Two years later, the Colts left Baltimore for Indianapolis in the middle of the night, enraging fans. The era of franchise free agency had begun.
Over the next few years owners would play cities against one another, threatening to move unless they could secure financial support for a new stadium. The St Louis Cardinals, Los Angeles Rams, Los Angeles Raiders, Cleveland Browns and Houston Oilers all moved within a decade. Glory For Sale compares the Colts’ flight from Baltimore with the Browns’ move and examines the implications for football economics and the expensive business of stadium-building.
But as Morgan points out, the franchises that actually moved were only part of the story. Washington, Cincinnati, Tampa Bay, Detroit and Seattle were just some of the cities where NFL owners used the threat of leaving town to get taxpayer funding for new or improved stadiums. This brought a period of relative stability before moves began again two decades later with the Rams (2016), Chargers (2017) and Raiders (2020).
Whether those moves herald the start of a new era of franchise free-agency remains to be seen but Morgan’s book shows how the 1980s shattered the illusion that teams reciprocated the loyalty of their fans. In place of local ties came personal seat licenses, luxury boxes and naming rights. Just like players, fans found that the business side of the NFL could be ruthless.
Jon Morgan has been a journalist for more than 35 years and is currently Editor-at-Large for Bloomberg News. In the 1990s, he was Sports Enterprise Reporter for the Baltimore Sun, specialising in the economic, legal and cultural aspects of sports. It was in this role that he wrote his two football books, Glory For Sale (1997) and Gaining a Yard (1998), both of which explored the Cleveland Browns’ move to Baltimore to become the Ravens.
“Directly or indirectly, the Browns’ relocation caused new stadiums to be built for the Ravens, the Redskins, the Bengals, the Browns, the Buccaneers, the Lions, the 49ers, and the Seahawks. The impact of the Browns’ move on taxpayers nationwide was thus staggering.”
“To keep teams from going bankrupt, the NFL limits an owner’s borrowing to a total of $50 million. Modell had already borrowed this amount, then put up both the Cleveland Stadium Corp.’s assets and his own personal assets to borrow even more. Even if, as Cleveland’s lawyers would later contend, the Browns were earning more from their stadium than the league average, it was not enough to fund Modell’s spending spree or to sustain the team in the future.”
“But sports teams, because they aren’t just about jobs and economics, shouldn’t be judged as such. They are first and foremost cultural assets, like art museums and symphony orchestras. Baltimore is a better place to live because of the Orioles and Ravens. Cleveland is a better place to live because of the Browns, Indians and Cavaliers. Hosting a World Series is no substitute for operating a successful school system or fielding an effective police force, but it shouldn’t have to be. A major-league sports team, even a losing one, can be a wonderful community enhancement, like a bustling waterfront or a historic site. […] Viewed this way, it’s easier to justify some spending for sports teams, but it’s still hard to justify the massive outlays now being proffered.”
Morgan brings a reporter’s eye for fact and detail to his main theme of the Browns’ move to Baltimore, as well as to the subsidiary story of how the Colts left the city. He shows how Irsay’s disregard for Baltimore and abrasive personality alienated local supporters and how the Colts’ departure laid the foundations for what would come later. Baltimore knew the pain of losing a team to another city but its leaders were also desperate to get football back.
Meanwhile, in Cleveland, Modell’s poor decisions create a situation that will eventually threaten the Browns’ future. Morgan details how Modell promised not to move his team, even though it was gradually becoming clear that he might have little option.
It’s an incisive and detailed book that gives a clear picture of the role of stadium economics in creating a financially successful NFL team. Morgan is sympathetic to the motives of his key players, but never excuses their hypocrisy or greed. Though the book centres on Baltimore football, it’s worth reading for any football fan and with teams still relocating in 2020, it’s as relevant as ever.
Shane Richmond, Pigskin Books
“The best account of the era of ‘franchise free agency’.”
Michael MacCambridge, America’s Game
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