By Bruce Checefsky

The Cleveland Browns’ lease at FirstEnergy Stadium will expire in 2028. The Haslam family and Haslam Sports Group, owners of the Browns, launched a feasibility study regarding the future of FirstEnergy Stadium. The study conducted by HKS Architects, which designed the Minnesota Vikings’ $1 billion enclosed US Bank Stadium, was completed in February and is not released.

Ward 12 Cleveland City Councilwoman Rebecca Maurer reported on efforts by the City Council to unlock the costs of operating the Cleveland sports arena at the recent Cuyahoga County Progressive Caucus (CCPC) March Membership Meeting. After considerable debate by council members at the Feb. 24 budget hearings, Maurer concluded the answer is found in the $9 million a year to pay off the bonds still owed on the existing stadium. Capital repairs add $4 million. Insurance and property taxes bring the total to $14.6 million to keep the stadium on the books.

The Browns pay $250,000 yearly to rent the stadium. Other revenue includes $4 million a year, a percentage of the sin tax collected by Cuyahoga County, and $10.2 million from the City of Cleveland General Fund, or 1.4% of its entire budget.

“The debts we owe are hard to find in the general budget,” said Maurer. “The annual audit offers a narrative on the stadium going back to 1997.”

Maurer and fellow city councilpersons asked the city administration if revenue from the stadium and associated taxes cover the stadium expenses.

“They told us no,” she added.

The Tennessee Titans unveiled plans for a $2.1 billion stadium, with the city of Nashville contributing $760 million and the state of Tennessee tossing in another $500 million. The $1.26 billion in public funding is the largest to date committed to a stadium project; surpassing the $850 million the Buffalo Bills received for their new $1.4 billion stadium. The Chicago Bears recently purchased Arlington International Racecourse as a potential new site for a stadium. The city of Chicago has proposed another $2.2 billion renovation of Soldier Field, which includes adding a roof, to keep the team downtown. The Baltimore Ravens are planning another massive renovation to M&T Bank Stadium after completing $120 million in improvements in 2019. The Maryland Stadium Authority secured up to $1.2 billion in borrowing power to overhaul the Ravens’ home and Camden Yards, home to the Baltimore Orioles, to keep both teams in town, as reported by Sports Radio, 92.3 The Fan, the flagship broadcast station for the Browns.

A new Browns stadium near the lakefront immediately east of downtown could include a dome or retractable roof . Early projections are between $1 billion and $2 billion. “If you live in the City of Cleveland, you pay double taxes, both a county and city tax,” said Steve Holecko, Political Director of the Cuyahoga County Progressive Caucus (CCPC). CCPC found during the Quicken Arena renovation referendum in 2017, now the Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse, over 74% of Clevelanders opposed the expenditure. “As far as the CAVS games at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse, and we can assume the numbers are similar to the Browns stadium, over 70% of people attending the games do not live in Cuyahoga County, and 90% do not live in the City of Cleveland,” said Holecko. “The numbers are even higher for concerts and events like Disney on Ice.”

Dr. Brad R. Humphreys, Professor of Economics at the University of West Virginia and an expert on sports economics and the economics of gambling and sports stadiums, said sports subsidy programs are shocking in their equity implications. In Cleveland, as in other major cities, taxpayers subsidize a sports team owned by a billionaire, whether they care about the Browns or have ever been to the stadium. “It is not out of the ordinary for taxpayers in a city to be subsidizing a private activity by a for-profit, privately held firm,” said Humphreys. “Team owners can threaten to move their franchise. The threat is credible. It is the root of the problem.” The increasing trend around the country is for sports franchise owners to demand a new sports stadium, and they have the leverage to do it, even while the current stadiums are still functional, said Humphreys. A domed stadium could provide a superior fan experience, but paying for it out of general tax revenue from the city is difficult to define on equity grounds.

Photo: Savannah Tank

“This happens largely outside the control of individual taxpayers in Cleveland because of a public policy in the United States that allows team owners to threaten to leave the city. If there were no credible threat, Haslam could not extract this kind of subsidy from taxpayers. They know the football team is deeply ingrained part of the civic fabric of Cleveland and can gain tremendous leverage by the rules of public policy.”

Roldo Bartimole, an independent journalist who started a political newsletter Point of View, which ran from June 1968 to December 2000, and wrote for The Cleveland Edition, The Cleveland Free Times, Cool Cleveland, and earlier in his career, The Wall Street Journal and The Cleveland Plain Dealer, said none of the stadiums pay property taxes. 25 years later, he figured Cuyahoga County lost over $500 million in tax revenue.

“Most of the lost taxes, at least 60%, come from the Cleveland Schools,” said Bartimole. “The stadium owners promised to pay $15 million yearly to the public schools and never did.”

Humphreys said professional sports teams and facilities are good at concentrating economic activity in and around the stadium on game day. New economic impact, which would not happen in the city if the team and game were not there, is hard to define.

“Someone going out to get a beer on game day would have happened somewhere else in Cleveland at some other time,” he said. “That spending is not an actual tangible economic benefit to the community. Twenty years of research published in peer review economic journals shows no tangible new economic benefits associated with professional sports in any city at any time. It is a myth to claim economic benefits by a new NFL stadium.”

The Browns’ regular season record from 1999 to 2023, following the construction of FirstEnergy Stadium, is 127-258-1. The franchise ranked near the bottom of the division every season except for a playoff win in 2020.

“Some frustrated voices are coming from City Council whenever a discussion about the stadium arises,” said Maurer, speaking for herself and not on behalf of City Council. “Our sports teams are part of the community fabric of the city. It is who we are. The NFL has made it complicated because of their track record in treating players, the physical toll of the game, racial elements, and certainly our quarterback. The Browns are not a team easy to root for.”

This article first appeared in the Plain Press.