CLEVELAND: I remember sitting in the Dawg Pound at Cleveland Stadium for two Monday night games in 1986 and by the fourth quarter, beer was running down the aisle.
At least I hope it was beer.
Browns fans have a romanticized version of those experiences because the team went 12-4 that season and reached the first of three AFC Championship Games in a four-year span. They believe those were the good old days.
But when it comes to the Browns’ home, the days were never good. Municipal Stadium was a rusted relic that might have burned quickly had a riot ensued on Dec. 17, 1995. Even when FirstEnergy Stadium opened in 1999 as Cleveland Browns Stadium, it was an ill-planned, under-funded, hastily built shell with no personality. Part of that might have been the rules set forth by the new ownership — no signs, no batteries that could be thrown, no wooden dog houses with a keg hidden inside.
Much of the stadium’s inadequacy had to do not with what was prohibited, but what was lacking. In Baltimore, there were two scoreboards with pictures sharper than a fan’s own eyes, a $10 million video and sound system. The Browns were left wanting from the restart.
But the $120 million improvement project the Browns unveiled Wednesday and will present to the city planning commission today is the first step toward giving fans what they have long deserved — a state-of-the-art venue with some of the amenities taken for granted in other NFL cities.
In a perfect Browns’ world, the new management group put together by owner Jimmy Haslam would blow up FirstEnergy Stadium and rebuild elsewhere. CEO Joe Banner admitted the idea of moving to another Northeast Ohio location was discussed.
“I think we felt it probably wasn’t the right time to try to do that and there probably was enough strength to this building that with a good investment this could be a place we could feel proud of and attract players to and create the first-class organization we wanted,” Banner said. “I’m not going to say we didn’t talk about it, but we really focused pretty quickly on the opportunities that existed here.”
Those opportunities could include an entertainment mecca if the city ever has the foresight to close Burke Lakefront Airport and develop the waterfront. Some city fathers could argue that FirstEnergy Stadium stands in the way of that.
“My understanding is that the waterfront development project is a priority of the city’s,” Banner said. “We’re very indirectly involved in that.”
Three of the Browns’ top executives have experience creating some of the league’s jewels. Banner was heavily involved in the construction of Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia. President Alec Scheiner developed and negotiated all agreements for Cowboys Stadium. Executive vice president Bryan Wiedmeier spent part of his 29 years with the Miami Dolphins in sales as the late Joe Robbie built the first privately financed stadium in the NFL.
FirstEnergy Stadium will never be a palace to compare to Jerry Jones’ in Dallas. But two new video scoreboards that will triple the size of the old ones, LED video screens throughout the stadium and a new audio system, all part of the 2014 phase of the Browns’ two-year proposal, will be a huge start. So would WiFi, which Scheiner said would be considered. Although about 3,000 seats would be lost, the lower bowl’s capacity would be increased, with some fans closer to the field.
“We’re optimistic that this will put us far down that path,” Scheiner said of the Cowboys’ model. “There are a couple palaces in the NFL, I’m familiar with one of them. I think we’ve got something special here as well. Bringing fans closer, bringing video boards closer will help us with our homefield advantage. I think it’s going to be a great experience in two years.”
Banner added that the Browns are trying to find a way to respect the historical aspects of the stadium and keep some of its familiarity while they modernize.
“We’re not trying to replicate the palaces, we’re trying to pick something for Cleveland in the context of the history and the 15 years we have in this building and move it forward,” Banner said.
The Browns made their presentation with no details of how the project will be funded, which seemed like a calculated move to get fans on their side and force the city’s hand. Asked if he had a Plan B if the city decided there are more pressing priorities, Banner said he was confident the financing could be worked out.
Some members of the Browns’ faithful might be disappointed the proposal wasn’t more grandiose. There will be no roof or dome, which Banner deemed “probably a nine-figure investment” when the structural needs were factored in.
But one invited season-ticket holder complimented Haslam on the fact that the hot chocolate sold at the concession stands is finally hot. That was a perfect example of thinking from the good old days, which we all know from years spent sitting behind a steel post were tolerable only because the Browns were winning.
Now the Browns seem poised to catch up to the rest of the league — on the scoreboard and with their scoreboards. Both are decades overdue.