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The Real Deal

Once a point of civic pride, the stadium could end up being another mistake on the lake.



Around Cleveland City Hall, the salt really hit the wound when the price started circulating.

Somewhere around a billion dollars: That was reportedly the figure when the Cleveland Browns franchise passed from the standoffish Randy Lerner to Tennessee businessman Jimmy Haslam. A billion.

The figure wasn't much of a surprise to anyone who pays attention to sports economics. NFL franchises — even the ones with only one winning record in 10 years — have only ballooned in value in the last decade. What irked local officials, particularly Cleveland Councilman Mike Polensek, is that the same team price-tagged at a billion dollars was at City Hall earlier this year, asking for another handout.

The request stirred up old resentment. Under the contractual obligations of the city's lease with the Browns, Cleveland is required to make annual payments of $850,000 to the team for major repairs to the stadium. This time, the Browns asked for the next six years' worth of payments up front, in one $5.8 million bundle, for "urgent work" on structural repairs and seat refurbishment. City Council agreed.

But in the aftermath of the Browns' sale, with hindsight, the request for that much money from a cash-strapped city struck some as unseemly.

"Here's the Browns at the time, they don't want to spend a nickel for anything or contribute to it, but then Randy Lerner sells the team for a billion dollars," Polensek tells Scene. "With all the issues we're contending with in this town, you would think the people who have the financial wherewithal would step up to the plate. But that don't happen. That's life."

More specifically, that's life for cities with publicly funded stadiums, which today translates into just about every stadium built in the last 20 years.

While everybody loves the hometown team, the house of play is likely a strain on public coffers, largely thanks to tax-code gymnastics, jaw-dropping subsidies, and bond debt. Cleveland's deal for Browns Stadium was one of the first such arrangements, and set the tone for much of what followed.

"There are a lot of bad [stadium deals]," says journalist Neil deMause, author of Field of Schemes, an exhaustive look at stadium deals and their fallout. Of the deal the City of Cleveland made for Browns Stadium, he says, "It's definitely not a good one. But it's hard to say it's the worst, because there are so many competitors for that title."

And Cleveland's stadium deal is reaching a critical point. It's powered largely by the sin tax, which not only hits a significant milestone this year in its funding schedule, but also is set to expire in 2015. Talk has already been percolating about extending the tax. But politically, the prospects are tough.

At the same time, the team's new ownership has been looking for ways to improve and repair the facility. And city officials are clamoring for anything that will wave a magic wand and change the stadium from the city's greatest welfare recipient into a money-generator.

When Art Modell announced that he was moving the Browns to Baltimore in November 1995, the question of whether Cleveland would get a replacement team was still up in the air. A year later, after the city took the NFL to court, a settlement was reached that would return football to Cleveland in 1999. What wasn't settled was whether another team would jump its market and relocate to Cleveland, or if the new Browns would be an expansion club.

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