Art Modell has again arrived, this time posthumously, at the doorstep of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He rose to fame and fortune as the owner of the Cleveland Browns, later relocated for no good reason except Modell's poor business sense, to Baltimore and renamed the Ravens.
Modell perhaps benefits from sympathy votes after his death in September. He was also a finalist in 2001, a year after the Ravens, the AFC champions this season, won their only Super Bowl. He was a semifinalist seven times between 2004 and 2011. Voting will take place next weekend before the Super Bowl in New Orleans by a committee of football writers.
Because there is always a chance voters don't know the real reason for the move, the story should begin with the fact that Modell was always a salesman, although his wares were not championship rings.
In 1961, he bought a Browns franchise that had been a dynasty. Except for an NFL championship in 1964, won with the players of the legendary coach, Paul Brown, whom he had fired the year before, he turned it into a franchise that, at best, was a near-miss. The Browns lost the 1965 NFL title game and lost five other times when victory would have given them their first Super Bowl appearance. From 1970 through 1995, when the franchise moved, his teams had a record of 194-195-3.
A high school dropout in New York, his stock in trade became Arthur Bertram Modell. As Willy Loman said in "Death of a Salesman," "Personality always wins the day."
Modell got a foot in the door of the revolutionary new television business as producer of "Market Melodies," one of the first regularly scheduled daytime shows. Playing on TV sets mounted on shelves in grocery stores, it gave housewives something to watch while waiting for the butcher to trim the rump roast.
With only $250,000 of his own money, he bought the Browns for $4 million. He took loans of $2.7 million and sold the idea of owning a piece of a pro football team to enough partners to make up the rest.
The selling job became harder after he fired Paul Brown in 1963. In Brown's autobiography, the coach savaged Modell, writing that there were two ways of doing business — "One was based on knowledge and experience. The other from a complete lack of either." Many Browns fans considered Modell an arrogant carpetbagger after Brown's firing.
With a quick wit and often engaging personality, Modell managed to connect with some media members, fans and, more importantly, members of the NFL elite. Any conversation with him included laughs. His personal friendship with the transformative NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle, which developed when both were bachelors with a taste for good food, drink and companionship, gave Modell the unofficial title of the "NFL's second-most powerful man."
"I never have to wait in line to see a buyer. 'Willy Loman is here!' That's all they have to know, and I go right through," said Arthur Miller's doomed salesman.
Modell's role in the negotiations that created a mass television audience for the NFL, however, was that of a facilitator. Rozelle was the "closer," not Modell. At Rozelle's funeral, ABC-TV programming visionary Roone Arledge said, "The way to get a television deal done was to have lunch with Pete."
In the end, Modell's long association with network executives fossilized his perception of the changing business. He wanted to offer rebates to the networks in 1991 when ratings slumped. Hard-driving Dallas owner Jerry Jones instead struck a deal with the upstart Fox Network for $1.6 billion over four years to broadcast the big-market NFC games in 1993. It was some $100 million per year more than a complacent CBS had offered. It legitimized Fox as a national network and led Modell to resign from the TV committee.
For years, Modell had been out there, selling the game. He staged exhibition doubleheaders here. “Monday Night Football,” Arledge’s baby, became a cultural phenomenon after Modell’s Browns agreed to play host to the first one.
Modell was never able to sell a new stadium to the fans or civic powers here, though. It became a priority when he took over crumbling Cleveland Muncipal Stadium, a move driven by thoughts of the rent he would collect from the tenants, the Indians. The building became a money hemorrhage instead.
By the mid-1990s, with the Indians becoming a great power after the sin tax-funded construction of Jacobs Field, Modell was no longer selling. He was only hoarding his power. He clung to the Browns because the team gave him his sense of self. Facing bankruptcy, he never attempted to sell to a local buyer who would keep the team here. He took a lease-breaking, sweetheart deal from Baltimore instead.
The move tore the heart out of the city, crushed fans who had supported his mediocre teams, and cast him forever as Cleveland's biggest villain.
Willy Loman, like Modell, never knew what the real, enduring values were in life. That is why Willy's suicide in the play is not really a tragedy.
The best chance for Modell to be inducted into the Hall of Fame was always going to be after he died, when passions had quieted. But a triumph enabled by death and marred by years of financial trouble, mediocre play and betrayed loyalty will always be a diminished one.
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