Obituary: Art Modell / Owner helped make pro football No. 1, broke Cleveland's heart

June 23, 1925 - Sept. 6, 2012


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Art Modell, who helped make professional football more popular than baseball and rich beyond its wildest dreams but who broke Cleveland's heart by killing his team, the Browns, to give birth to the Baltimore Ravens, died Thursday at a Baltimore hospital. He was 87.

The death was announced on the Ravens' website. Mr. Modell, who lived in Cockeysville, Md., north of the city, had a history of coronary problems.

In a postwar era when pro football was extending its franchises across America and its reach into the fantasies of millions of armchair quarterbacks, Mr. Modell was the hands-on owner of the Browns from 1961 to 1995 and of the Ravens from 1996 to 2003. He was also a behind-the-scenes visionary.

"Art Modell was a good friend to our family and he will be sadly missed," Steelers chairman emeritus Dan Rooney said in a statement posted on Steelers.com. "He was instrumental in helping the National Football League become what it is today, and he always had the league's best interest at hand."

For 31 years, from 1962 to 1993, Mr. Modell represented National Football League owners in negotiations with television networks that generated $8.4 billion for the league and gave fans at home a coast-to-coast succession of games, turning Sunday afternoons, Monday nights and eventually Sunday nights into lost weekends for the most ardent fans.

An innovative, relentless promoter, Mr. Modell even toyed with Friday night football.

"We made the announcement," he recalled referring to the league, "and within 72 hours Congress passed a law prohibiting Friday night games until the high school and college seasons ended."

But Mr. Modell supported a succession of winning ideas -- the expansion of the NFL into many cities; the 1970 merger of the American Football League and the National Football League into competing NFL conferences; preseason games that whet fans' appetites and brought in more television money; and revenue-sharing plans that balanced risks among the owners, whom he called partners. They elected him president in 1967-69, and he negotiated the league's first collective bargaining agreement with the players in 1968.

In 1962, he started preseason doubleheaders -- back-to-back exhibition games on a Saturday before the season opener. In 1970, he volunteered his Browns for another experiment: hosting the first nationally televised Monday night football game. They beat the New York Jets, and another profit center was born.

For nearly 35 years, Cleveland idolized him. His team's overall record was quite good, sprinkled with playoff appearances, though only one championship, in 1964. But Browns games sold out regularly and families built traditions around them. He raised money for charities. He won "Pride of Cleveland" and "Super Citizen" awards, and was elected to the boards of corporations and universities.

But all that came crashing down in 1995 when Mr. Modell announced that, having lost $21 million in the previous two seasons, he would move the Browns to Baltimore for 1996.

Wounded Cleveland shrieked betrayal. There were street protests, an avalanche of hate mail and death threats against Mr. Modell. Sportswriters reviled him. At the final home game, beer bottles and seats torn from their moorings rained down on the field.

He was likened to Walter O'Malley, who moved the Brooklyn Dodgers to Los Angeles after the 1957 season. (When LeBron James quit the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Miami Heat in 2010, polls showed that the lingering hostility to Mr. Modell was greater.) Fans, advertisers and the city filed lawsuits, arguing futilely that leases and contracts required the Browns to stay in Cleveland.

Mr. Modell left town and never went back, not even when his Baltimore team played there annually or when his old friend Hall of Fame Browns kicker Lou Groza died in 2000. For the rest of his life Mr. Modell was persona non grata in Cleveland. Baltimore, which had lost its Colts to Indianapolis in 1984 and was hungry for a new team, welcomed him with a free stadium for 1996 and 1997, a new stadium in 1998 and lucrative concessions.

For three years, pro football vanished from Cleveland. But under an NFL agreement, the Browns' name, colors and franchise records were retained in the city, where a new team, called the "reactivated" Browns, began playing in 1999.

Mr. Modell kept his team, which was designated an expansion franchise, the Baltimore Ravens. After four poor seasons, it won Super Bowl XXXV in 2001, defeating the New York Giants. It was the high point of Mr. Modell's career. He sold the team to Steve Bisciotti, completing the $600 million transaction after the 2003 season.

Arthur Bertram Modell was born in New York City on June 23, 1925, one of three children of George L. and Kitty Maizman Modell. Arthur's father, a wine sales manager, went bankrupt in 1929 and died when the boy was 14. He dropped out of high school and worked as a railroad oiler to help support his mother and two sisters. In 1943, he enlisted in the Army Air Forces and fought in World War II.

In 1948, he joined ABC as a producer and over the next six years helped to provide the young television network with its first regular daytime programming. In 1954, he joined the New York City advertising firm L.H. Hartman, where he specialized in liquor ads for television.

With $250,000 of his own money and loans from banks and friends, he bought the Browns for $4 million in 1961. The team, founded in 1946 in the All-American Football Conference, had joined the NFL in a 1950 league merger. When Mr. Modell took over, there were only 13 NFL teams, but his had Jim Brown, the league's leading rusher, and legendary coach Paul Brown, who had won seven championships with his namesake team.

Unlike previous owners, Mr. Modell actively managed the Browns, sometimes deciding which players to draft, though he said he did not dictate to coaches on the field. Yet frictions developed, and in 1963 he fired Paul Brown and named Blanton Collier as coach. The controversial change seemed justified a year later when the Browns won the NFL championship. But Modell teams won no more titles in Cleveland.

By 1995, the 49-year-old Browns had become perennial losers. Player costs and deficits had soared. In six years the team had lost 58 games. Home field was a ramshackle stadium built in 1931. Mr. Modell did not beg Cleveland for a new stadium, like those being built elsewhere in the league. Instead, he secretly struck a better deal in Baltimore. His team played in Memorial Stadium for two years, then moved into a new stadium adjacent to Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

Mr. Modell has been nominated repeatedly for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, but was not elected.

obituaries - Steelers

First Published September 6, 2012 11:30 AM


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