The greater Cleveland sports reporting universe burst Thursday with news about Browns owners Dee and Jimmy Haslam potentially buying a suburban tract of land, potentially as a home for a new stadium.
We did not carry a story on it, on cleveland.com or in The Plain Dealer. The decision was a tough one, but it came down to a dearth of facts.
A blog with a dubious history first reported the news, based on unnamed sources. The Browns soon issued a statement of 142 words that seemed designed to appear as news while saying almost nothing. Late in the day, the city of Cleveland issued what appeared to be a response to the Browns, but it also said nothing of substance.
We need substance to write news stories. We didn’t have a single piece of concrete information showing what the Browns are up to.
What we do know is that the Haslams have been negotiating with Cleveland Mayor Justin Bibb for nearly a year on renovating the Browns lakefront stadium and how much the public should pay for that.
Negotiations between cities and sports teams are a chess match. Cities seek to spend the least amount of money needed to keep the teams from moving away while the teams try to soak the taxpayers for as much as they can get. It has happened repeatedly in Cleveland and cities across the nation.
Was the news that the Haslams might buy a suburban site a chess move? Would getting that possibility — real or not – on news platforms cause such a stir that the Browns might negotiate a better deal with the city? With nearly every news outlet reporting the Browns might head to the suburbs, would Bibb be more likely to offer more cash?
Our newsroom can’t be a pawn in the chess game. We have standards, and so far, this story does not meet them. All we have is the city’s vague release about continuing to negotiate with the Browns and the equally vague Browns statement offering just enough to stir the media stew. You can read both below.
You could argue that we should have reported the statements, but journalism is not transcription. It is truth. The statements are not truth. They are spin. We don’t have enough facts yet to get at the truth.
We have a lot of facts that fly in the face of this story.
We know that the city, county and many others have been working together for months on a comprehensive stadium renovation plan and sources of money to pay for it.
We know that the Haslams are the ones who stepped forward a few years ago to talk about how much they want to develop the Cleveland lakefront around the stadium, with a land bridge connecting downtown to the water and a re-orienting of the Shoreway to make the area more accessible. The Haslams get the credit for launching the entire lakefront discussion.
We know the state is poised to provide $20 million for the land bridge, and plenty of federal money might be available to deal with the highway.
We know that Jimmy Haslam himself said less than a year ago: “Having the stadium down there seems to be in everybody’s best interest. So we’re committed to redoing the stadium. In all likelihood, it’s not going to have a dome, but it’ll be a substantial remodel of the existing facility and we’re probably three, four, five years away from that happening.”
I talk to a lot of people in the my job, in a lot of off-the-record conversations, and I can tell you that people who know about the stadium talks have been certain for months that the plan is to renovate the existing stadium, not build new. I’d actually prefer something new, not on the lakefront, but whenever I ask, I’m told a new stadium is not a possibility.
Consider what would happen if the Haslams took the stadium to the suburbs. First, they’d have to build something entirely new, which is far more expensive than the renovation under discussion. Where does that money come from?
And if the Haslams walked away from the city, they’d give up all those funding sources the city has assembled. Does any suburb have resources to match what Cleveland has? No. And what would taxpayers in those small suburbs say about such a financial commitment?
Also, face it: Bibb would not lose many votes if the Browns moved to a suburb. Few of his constituents can afford to attend games. But the Haslams would be vilified as the second owners to abandon downtown Cleveland for a better deal elsewhere.
Anything is possible. We get that. Sometimes, things that don’t pass the sniff test turn out to be true. But when we took a look at this, we had nothing in hand upon which to base a story and a whole lot in hand to raise questions about its veracity.
We have plenty of room for disagreement here. The debate on our team was spirited. If you disagree, please don’t blame the reporters and editors responsible for coverage of Browns or the city. I made the call. If you want to scorn someone, scorn me. And just so you know, a story on this issue — any story — would have been read by hundreds of thousands of people on our site, generating advertising revenue for us. Doing the right thing trumps revenue.
We’ll keep looking and asking questions, but for now, the facts we have are about the Haslams and the city remaining in their chess match on renovating Browns Stadium.
Here is the statement the Browns issued.
“We’ve been clear on how complex future stadium planning can be. One certainty is our commitment to greatly improving our fan experience while also creating a transformative and lasting impact to benefit all of Northeast Ohio. We understand the magnitude of opportunity with a stadium project intent on driving more large-scale events to our region and are methodically looking at every possibility. We appreciate the collaborative process with the City of Cleveland and the leadership of Mayor Bibb in analyzing the landbridge and renovating the current stadium. At the same time, as part of our comprehensive planning efforts, we are also studying other potential stadium options in Northeast Ohio at various additional sites. There is still plenty of work to do and diligence to process before a long term stadium solution is determined and will share further updates at the appropriate time.”
And here is the statement from Bradford Davy, who is Justin Bibb’s chief of staff:
Keeping the Browns at home on the downtown Cleveland lakefront is a priority for Mayor Bibb and City leadership. We understand and respect how complex this process is and appreciate the partnership we’ve had and will continue to have with the Browns and Haslam Sports Group (HSG).
The administration has developed a strong, thoughtful and comprehensive package that we believe respects taxpayers and protects the city’s general revenue fund while meeting the needs expressed by the team. This has been shared with the HSG team during our extensive negotiations over the last 8 months. We continue to meet with their team to refine our terms and come to a shared vision and acceptable deal for both parties that improves the experience for residents, sports fans and visitors. The success of our collaboration and commitment on this topic has been recently demonstrated through yesterday’s $20M earmark which advances our shared goal of improving lakefront access to the stadium for everyone.
The experience of Cleveland residents and visitors to our city is top of mind for us and we are committed to developing our North Coast Lakefront into a world-class, well-programmed, people-focused space and we see the activation of Browns Stadium as a key part of that vision. The mayor’s commitment to a vibrant shore-to-core-to-shore plan for Cleveland is steadfast and gaining momentum. Downtown Cleveland is such an integral part of the game day experience and the transformational changes on the horizon promise to make that experience even better.
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Thanks for reading.