Art Modell, 1925–2012

The NFL owner Cleveland loved to hate

Art Modell was beloved and detested in almost equal measure, thanks to the move that defined his career as an NFL owner. He became a hero in Baltimore after relocating the Cleveland Browns to the city in 1996, renaming them the Ravens, and shepherding them to a 2001 Super Bowl win. But in Cleveland, fans burned him in effigy and issued death threats. Modell never returned to the city he had called home for 35 years.

A high school dropout, Modell made his fortune on Madison Avenue, said the Los Angeles Times, before entering the world of football by buying the Browns in 1961. Fans reacted with skepticism when the New Yorker first came to town, and then with hostility the following year when he fired the team’s founding coach, Paul Brown, “a legend in Cleveland.” But they warmed to him after the Browns won the NFL championship in 1964, and eventually embraced him as an idol, awarding him “Pride of Cleveland” and “Super Citizen” awards.

Over the next three decades, said The Wall Street Journal, Modell “was at the center of nearly everything that came to define his industry.” He negotiated the NFL’s first national TV contract in 1962, and oversaw the deal that led to Monday Night Football in 1970, spinning TV rights into what became an $8.4 billion cash cow for the league. He also played a key role in the NFL-AFL merger of 1970, transforming the leagues “from provincial operations into national behemoths.”

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But it was “The Move” that defined his legacy, said After failing to convince Cleveland to build a new stadium, Modell announced in 1995 that he would transfer the team to Baltimore. Distraught fans marched on the stadium carrying signs reading “Art the Ripper.” Modell became “the often lampooned embodiment of the greedy and mercenary sports owner,” a reputation that dogged him until his death and arguably denied him a place in the Hall of Fame.

Modell acknowledged that his legacy was tarnished by the move, but maintained that he had little choice. “The politicians and the bureaucrats saw fit to cover their own rear ends,” he said in 1999, “by blaming it on me.”

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