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New Browns owner shows up at practice
BEREA, OHIO (AP) - The new owner of the Cleveland Browns watched his team practice Friday, ahead of being introduced to a city desperate for its first NFL championship in nearly a half century.
Tennessee truck-stop magnate Jimmy Haslam III walked to the middle of the field Friday with team President Mike Holmgren and general manager Tom Heckert for his first glimpse at what $1 billion can buy. Haslam wore a Browns T-Shirt and shorts on a hot, humid morning.
Randy Lerner reached a deal Thursday to sell the club to Haslam, a minority stockholder in the rival Steelers. Haslam must divest his interest in the Steelers and also gain approval for the purchase from the NFL.
Pat Shurmur spoke to the new owner at practice.
“What I found out, and what I think everyone found out, is I found them to be very passionate people, very excited to own Cleveland Browns,” he said of the Haslam family. “This should be a great mix for our fan base and our city.”
Lerner will sell 70 percent of the Browns to Haslam now, with the other 30 percent reverting to him four years after the closing date, a person with knowledge of the sale told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because details have not officially been announced.
“This is a very exciting time for my family and me,” Haslam said through the team. “To own such a storied franchise as the Cleveland Browns, with its rich tradition and history, is a dream come true. We are committed to keeping the team in Cleveland and seeing it get back to the elite of the NFL _ something all Browns fans want and deserve.”
While the papers have been signed, the NFL still must sign off on the deal. Getting the nod from 24 of the 32 teams is required, and no date has been set for a vote because the sale has not been presented to the league yet. The person with knowledge of the sale said approval is expected by the end of September.
ESPN reported the sale price was more than $1 billion. For comparison, the Miami Dolphins sold at a value of more than $1 billion in 2009.
The Browns were valued at $977 million last year by Forbes magazine, 20th in the NFL.
Steelers President Art Rooney II said in a statement Friday that he’s sorry Haslam will be leaving, “but I am happy the National Football League is going to have a strong new owner. I am sure the Haslam family will bring constructive and able ownership to the Cleveland Browns.”
Asked if he was surprised by the deal, Holmgren said: “On one hand, the surprising part was the time of the year. But in this business, I gave up being surprised a long time ago.”
Lerner, whose family has owned the franchise since it returned to the NFL in 1999, first announced he was in negotiations to sell the club last week. The late Al Lerner, Randy’s father, purchased the franchise from the NFL in 1998 for $530 million after the original Browns moved to Baltimore in 1996 and became the Ravens. The elder Lerner died in 2002.
Randy Lerner also is the owner of Aston Villa, a club in the English Premier League.
The expansion Browns entered the NFL in 1999 and have made the playoffs just once, a 2002 first-round loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. They’ve had only two winning records in 13 seasons and are 68-140 since they returned.
Even with a string of failures on the field, the value of the Browns _ like other NFL franchises _ keeps increasing, boosted by broadcast income. The league agreed in December to nine-year contracts with CBS, Fox and NBC that run through the 2022 season and will boost revenue from the $1.93 billion last season to $3.1 billion by 2022. The NFL reached an eight-year extension with ESPN last year through the 2021 season that increases the rights fee from $1.1 billion to $1.9 billion annually.
Haslam has been a minority investor in the Steelers since 2008, and is the president and CEO of Pilot Flying J, the largest operator of travel centers and travel plazas in North America. He is the older brother of Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam.
According to a 2010 profile on Steelers.com, Haslam has been a Dallas Cowboys fan and then an Indianapolis Colts fan. But with the Pittsburgh investment, Haslam said he had become “1,000 percent a Steelers fan.”
The Haslam brothers are supporters of the University of Tennessee, where their father Jim Haslam played tackle on the 1951 national championship football team under Gen. Robert R. Neyland, who built the Volunteers into a football powerhouse.
The elder Haslam founded the Pilot Corp. in 1958 with a single gas station in Gate City, Va. He credits sons Bill and Jimmy with expanding the chain from mostly gas stations and convenience stores to a “travel center” concept of truck stops featuring branded fast food service.
But the current staff might be if the Browns don’t do better than the 4-12 record of 2011, Shurmur’s first season as coach. New owners usually bring in their own management team, although Shurmur has impressed many people around the league.
“I have no fear about any of that because I trust my coaches, I trust the players and I’ve watched the work they’ve done based on the conversation of this last week,” Shurmur said Thursday. “I think we’re moving full steam ahead. That doesn’t bother me one bit at this point at this point. My concern is getting this team ready to play and our players understand that message and they are doing a good job.”
“Honestly, my focus is to have guys here concentrating on football, making it business as usual,” he said. “The what ifs and hypotheticals, I have to stay away from.”
Haslam would be the sixth majority owner of the Browns: team founder Mickey McBride (1945-1953), David Jones (1953-1961), Art Modell (1961-1995), Al Lerner (1998-2002), and Randy Lerner (2002-present). An NFL trust also oversaw the inactive franchise from 1996-1998.
Cleveland last won the NFL championship in 1964, beating Johnny Unitas and the then-Baltimore Colts 27-0.
The Browns have never been to the Super Bowl.
Freelance writers Brian Dulik and Chuck Murr in Berea, Ohio, contributed to this story.
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