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Art Modell and the business of professional football

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Arthur Bertram (Art) Modell died yesterday at the age of 87. Whatever one might think of him, he was a very important figure in the business of professional football.

This Examiner, as a staff person in a civic organization where Modell was an active board member, had some very brief encounters with Modell and watched him interact with his peers in committee meetings. Many people this Examiner knew and others he still knows quite well had business dealings with Modell. All of this forms this Examiner’s rather unfavorable opinion of Modell as a person. That, by the way, is hardly a unique opinion, as seen on this web site http://www.ridertown.com/news/MDW/MDW.html.

Therefore, most of this column will focus on what Modell should, perhaps, most be remembered for...a real leader in making professional football a very profitable business. Modell understood that professional sports is part of the entertainment industry, but it is first a business. He also understood that television is part of the entertainment industry, but it is first a business. And he understood advertising. With both TV and advertising in his background and his interest in football, this was a natural.

Modell was born in Brooklyn (the other one that’s part of New York City, not the real one on the west side of Cleveland). He was never the student type and after time in the Army Air Corp in World War II, he enrolled in what we would call a technical school. That school was for those interested in the then fledgling television industry. There he learned a lot about all aspects of television including the business aspects. From a mid-level TV career, he moved into advertising where he made a lot more money.

When the opportunity came up to buy the Cleveland Browns he grabbed it even though he had to borrow heavily and take on partners. One of those partners was the Cleveland branch of the fairly private and well-to-do Gries family. There were to be fairly public lawsuits between Robert (Bob) Gries and Art Modell.

Modell liked to be involved with his team and that brought him into conflict with the Browns’ founder and highly successful head coach, Paul Brown. Brown did things his way and over the years that resulted in winning about 90 percent of the time. When Brown did not do what Modell wanted, Brown was fired.

Paul would go on to start the successful Cincinnati Bengals. Many people in Cleveland rooted for the Bengals during those Browns-Bengals games and many of those regularly rooted for the Browns to lose. Just as much of the anger over Modell’s egotism was subsiding, in part from a loss of Paul Brown fans, Modell got into a dispute with the City of Cleveland, Cuyahoga County, and other authorities over a new stadium. Modell entered into secret negotiations with the state of Maryland and moved the Browns to Baltimore. Readers may remember the Colts making their midnight move to Indianapolis. A lawsuit kept the name and colors in Cleveland for a new Cleveland Browns.

Modell’s Baltimore Ravens did win a Super Bowl, something the Browns have yet to accomplish. Throughout Modell’s tenures in Cleveland and Baltimore, he guided league negotiations with players, with the television industry, with advertisers and basically everything business. Whether that should qualify Modell to be enshrined in Canton is debatable. That the business of football--more than the sport of football--owes him a lot is not debatable.

For some documentation and more detail please see Art_Modell

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