Saturday, July 28, 2012

Not Lerner Revisited



It’s no real surprise that Randy Lerner is on the precipice of selling controlling interest in the Cleveland Browns.  He may be a lifelong fan still clingy to his Browns jammies, but he’s been a reluctant owner since Day 1.  The only surprise, really, is that he held on this long.  He has a pattern.

When the sale is finalized, Lerner’s deconstruction of most of what his father built will have been completed.  When Lerner inherited MBNA bank and all its billions from his father Al, he didn’t wait nearly this long to sell it so he could pursue other hobbies.  With the sale of the Browns, Lerner is now nearly completely free of money-making enterprises.  That sound you hear is the huge cry of indifference as to what he does next.

The news has been kicking around inside the NFL for months that Lerner was in negotiations to sell controlling interest of the team.  Jimmy Haslam III, he of the Flying J rest stops that seem to dominate the highways from Cleveland to all points south, owns a minority interest in the Pittsburgh Steelers but he came to the inevitable conclusion that he was never going to wrest majority control of that franchise from the Rooney family. (Recall, though, that there was actually talk at the time Haslem bought his interest that the Rooneys may have been interested in selling outright.)  

Liking the view from the owner’s box, Haslam let it be known that his desires were bigger.  Because the key to life is timing, those desires found a willing partner in one whose own were waning.  It could be about the money as the reported sale price for controlling interest is in the $1 billion range, but it seems more about Lerner finally trying to find his own identity while also finding a way to remove his square peg self from the round hole of NFL ownership.
All the instant reassurance that the Browns would not be relocated as the result of the sale was meant to quell a skittish fan base but in truth there was never any chance that the NFL would ever allow the Browns to be relocated again anyway.  The real question to mull is exactly what kind of owner Haslam will be?

We know that Lerner was a lousy owner by any measuring stick you want to pull out but he did understand at least that his ownership interest was never really his in the first place.  He held it in trust for the fans even if he was clueless as to how to engage with them.  That contrasts wildly with owners like Jerry Jones in Dallas and Dan Snyder in Washington, D.C., two megalomaniacs locked in their own separate battle over who really represents the center of the solar system.  Fan engagement to them is simply another branding opportunity.

There has never been anything about owning the Browns that appealed to Lerner so it won’t be sad to see him go.  His detachment was legendary.  When the team needed him most he set off for England in a quest to own a Premier League team.  He granted interviews sparingly and reluctantly.  He made decisions impetuously as if the intent was to sweep the problem off the desk as quickly as possible.  It’s no accident that the Browns have foundered under his ownership.  Lerner foundered as an owner and the team and its results matched his psyche.

As for Haslam, maybe the team never gets appreciably better under him but it certainly can’t get worse.  The other thing is that it almost doesn’t matter to the fans how bad the team is anyway.  They mostly still support it with an unwavering enthusiasm irrespective of the abuse that usually results.  That said, what Browns fans should understand is that once Haslam takes control it won’t be too long until there’s regime change and the inevitable several year waiting period for it to take hold.

Haslam strikes no one as Lerner Revisited so it’s safe to assume that he has no intention of paying nearly a $1 billion bounty to own a set of crown jewels and then let someone else caretake it for him.  That means that unless Mike Holmgren can finagle his way into the new ownership group his days as a long distance architect are probably numbered.  Once he’s gone it doesn’t take long for the rest of the dominoes to fall.  Perhaps that’s why head coach Pat Shurmur was so prickly at his press conference on Friday.  He understands how this all works.  In the speed of a one day news cycle, Shurmur’s second year as head coach took on a certain air of “what’s the point?”.
So whatever excitement you might muster for Brandon Weeden as the quarterback of the future, you shouldn’t get too comfortable.  Whatever regime Haslam installs will undoubtedly have a different view of the football world then Holmgren, Heckert, and Shurmur.  It will manifest itself in the defensive schemes they play, the type of offense they run and the type of players they want.  In short, the current system, for whatever merit it might have, will get flushed, sooner or later but definitely.

Do the fans have it in them to endure another regime change?  Of course.  They understand the cycle as well as anyone.  Besides there is a certain allure of new blood.  It brings with it a renewed sense of hope even if it eventually collapses under its own weight of incompetence.
On the surface, there is much to like about Haslam, particularly as compared to Lerner.  Perhaps Lerner’s biggest shortcoming as an owner stemmed from his almost complete lack of business acumen.  Lerner inherited his wealth that was borne of a successful business his father started.  Lerner took the same indifferent approach to that business, MBNA, which he took to the Browns.   He sold it at the first opportunity.  He sunk a pile of dough into the Aston Villa franchise in England but it hasn’t helped much.  Indeed it has been bleeding money under his ownership.  In other words, he has no record of accomplishment.

Haslam on the other hand actually took the family business and with his brothers worked long and hard to learn it and then grew it into a far more profitable venture.  His fortune isn’t just inherited it’s also earned and that’s a significant difference.  Running a series of truck stops may be nothing like running a NFL franchise but the same business principles apply to each.  Customer loyalty is critical to any business and surely Haslam could not have built a successful business without understanding that.  That gives him a huge head start.

When you take care of your customers and give them a reason to want to do business with you again, good results tend to follow.

Yet there seems to be a little concern that Haslam is a self-proclaimed Steelers fan, as if somehow that would retard his ability as an owner of the Browns.

Frankly, I wouldn’t care if Haslam was a Michigan grad who interned for the Yankees and held lifetime season tickets to the Steelers so long as he takes a more proactive approach to owning the Browns.  Dan Gilbert was viewed as a carpetbagger from Detroit and yet has invested significantly in the Cavaliers and the community.  You may question his direction but never his passion for the Cavs and its place within the city of Cleveland.

Haslam and Gilbert are of a similar ilk and so it’s far more likely that Haslam will follow the Gilbert model and not the path set out by Lerner.   I would expect Haslam to embrace the special relationship between this team and its fans.  I would expect him to seek first to rebuild the trust with the fans that Lerner never seemed interested in capturing.  Ultimately, I expect Haslam to be successful because that’s his track record.

New ownership for the Browns may not have been the preferred way of kicking off a new season but it’s not a huge negative, either.  The team will once again struggle on the field as the thinness of its roster reveals itself when the inevitable injuries mount.  But as Haslam’s ownership works its way first through the approval process and then the transition it will serve as a decent distraction.  Whether it becomes an actual distraction, however, remains to be seen and something Haslam, ultimately, has the power to control.

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