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The Absent Owner

Those celebrating the departure of Randy Lerner might want to wait a second



It's easy enough to understand why the local reaction to Randy Lerner's sale of the Browns to Tennessee gas station scion Jimmy Haslam has been almost universally positive. Selling the team to anyone who will keep it in town gives Browns fans as much to celebrate as they've had in a decade and a half.

The record under the Lerner family's ownership speaks for itself: 13 seasons, 10 with 10 losses or more, and zero playoff wins. In a league where parity is the rule, the Lerner-Era Browns have been an unthinkably embarrassing exception. (By 2011, Randy was estimated to have spent at least $40 million to pay six former coaches and managers to not work for him.)

The younger Lerner inherited the team from his father in 2002, despite having no discernible previous success in any business at all. He was an absentee owner, keeping primary residences in New York and the U.K. (his private jet touched down in the East Hampton, NY airport 390 times between 2007-2011, almost twice as much as any other plane using that airport). And he was an invisible owner; with rare exceptions, he steadfastly refused to speak with the Cleveland press, no matter how bad things got with his football team.

Worse was the stark contrast with his enthusiastic expressions of Anglophilia and love for the nine-figure toy that he really wanted, English soccer club Aston Villa, which he purchased in 2006. "I wanted to stay [in London after completing university studies at Cambridge], but it didn't work out," he told the London Times in 2008. "Oh God, I loved being on a bicycle, not in a car."

Enter Jimmy Haslam, who was immediately touted as Lerner's precise opposite: enthusiastic, passionate, hands-on.

The Plain Dealer's Mary Kay Cabot added a working-class patina, describing him as "a 6-3, physically fit man who ... looks like a former linebacker," and writing of his first visit to training camp: "Many of the 3,175 fans in attendance were thrilled to see the new owner looking like a regular guy — just out watching some football."

But how much meaningful time can we really expect Tennessee royalty to spend in Cleveland? Though he claims that he's shopping for a house here, Haslam has said that his "main home" will remain in Knoxville. He also added that he "spend[s] a pretty good amount of time running [Pilot Flying J]," which might or might not include the time he spends as a member of what the Washington Post described as the Republican Party's "fundraising elite."

Some folks will say that a good-enough NFL owner is one who simply cuts the checks and stays out of the way. Lerner offered powerful evidence to the contrary. And say what you will about Art Modell: After he moved here from New York, he did nothing but live and breathe Cleveland and the Browns (a 2003 USA Today profile noted that "the NFL [was] Modell's life and livelihood"). Not coincidentally, Modell was the last owner to have brought Cleveland to championship glory.

There's also the example of Haslam's soon-to-be-former partners in the Rooney family, owners of the Pittsburgh Steelers. In running the most successful franchise in modern NFL history, the Rooneys are famous for their daily presence at team facilities and routinely lauded by players for the culture they've created in Pittsburgh.

But owners like Modell and the Rooneys, who purchased their franchises decades ago for pennies of what they're worth today, are a vanishing breed in today's multi-billion-dollar NFL. And Haslam was quick to distance himself from his minority ownership in the hated rival: "I took my Steelers watch off yesterday and put on a Browns watch today."

But of course, the Haslams don't choose their affiliations (or, surely, their watches) the way the rest of us do, and their new affiliation with the Browns is simply a no-brainer. NFL franchises are essentially guaranteed eight-figure annuities — not just legal monopolies, but also heavily subsidized. League revenues continue to explode (with multi-billion dollar annual TV contracts already in place through 2022). And even though the Browns have become synonymous with failure during his tenure, Lerner will still get almost $500 million more for the franchise than his father paid for it just 13 years ago.

So the Haslam family is getting a gold mine. Browns fans who believe the publicly owned Green Bay Packers have the best owners in football might already be nostalgic for Lerner-brand disinterest and ineffectuality.

In any event, after a near-50-year-and-running championship drought, Cleveland is left to hope that a billionaire who's more enthusiastic about his 10-figure playthings is just what this town has been missing.

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