Modell, Who Shaped NFL, Moved Cleveland’s Team, Dies at 87

Art Modell, Who Shaped NFL, Moved Cleveland’s Team, Dies at 87
Art Modell is seen during Super Bowl Media Day at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa in this file photo taken on Jan. 23, 2001. Photographer: Peter Muhly/AFP/Getty Images

Art Modell, the marketing executive who helped negotiate the National Football League’s first television contract and later enraged fans when he moved the Cleveland Browns franchise to Baltimore, has died. He was 87.

Modell died today of natural causes, the Baltimore Ravens said in a statement, citing his son, David. He died at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, where he was admitted yesterday, the Associated Press reported, citing the team.

“He was a great man who had a tremendous impact on the NFL,” league Commissioner Roger Goodell said today at the Bloomberg Sports Business Summit hosted by Bloomberg Link in New York.

A high-school dropout who made a fortune on Madison Avenue and married a soap opera star, Modell bought the Browns in 1961 for $3.9 million. The team had won three NFL championships during the 1950s and added another under Modell in 1964, cementing the relationship between the native New Yorker and Cleveland, his adopted hometown.

He would later leave Cleveland as a pariah for moving the team in 1996 to Baltimore, where, under a deal with the NFL, it became the Ravens, leaving the Browns name in Cleveland for a new team to adopt.

In 2001, a year after Modell sold 49 percent of the Ravens for $275 million, the team won its first championship since 1964 and its only Super Bowl, beating the New York Giants 34-7. “We came so close time and time again, but no cigar,” Modell said after the victory. “Now comes the cigar.”

Modell finally sold his majority share in 2004, ending 43 years of active ownership, during which time he shaped not only a franchise but the entire league.

Rozelle Adviser

He was one of former NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle’s most trusted advisers as the league rose in the 1960s and 1970s to become the most popular U.S. spectator sport.

“Whenever there was a decision to be made, Pete would go to Art to confirm it was the right one,” said NFL spokesman Joe Brown, who began working for the league as an intern in 1965.

Modell helped negotiate the league’s first national television contract, a two-year, $4.6 million agreement with CBS in 1962. In 1970, he participated in negotiations with ABC that led to Monday Night Football. He was chairman of the owners’ committee that negotiated the first collective-bargaining agreement with players in 1968.

He also helped develop the NFL’s revenue-sharing system, which he called the biggest reason for the league’s success and popularity, since it helps teams in smaller media markets compete with those in big cities. “It’s imperative that revenue sharing be the hallmark of this league,” Modell said shortly before stepping down as owner in 2004.

Brooklyn Born

Arthur Bertram Modell was born to George Modell, a day laborer, and his wife Kitty on June 23, 1925, in Brooklyn, New York.

He dropped out of high school at 15 and got his first job as an electrician’s helper, cleaning out the hulls of ships in a local shipyard. He served in the U.S. Army Air Forces, the predecessor of the U.S. Air Force, during World War II, then made use of the G.I. Bill to attend television school in New York. Starting in 1948, he helped create some of the earliest daytime programming on ABC.

In 1954, he joined the New York advertising firm of L.H. Hartman Co., where he became a partner and made his fortune.

Cleveland fans expressed skepticism, and sometimes hostility, when the New Yorker Modell bought the Browns in 1961. Following the 1962 season, Modell dismissed Paul Brown, a legend in Cleveland as the team’s founding head coach.

Just Short

After the Browns won the NFL championship in 1964, they lost the title game in 1965, 1968 and 1969. On three other occasions, they came one game short of reaching the Super Bowl, losing all three times to the Denver Broncos.

Though Cleveland had one of the most loyal fan bases in the NFL, Modell said in the 1990s that he couldn’t compete with teams that had modern stadiums with lucrative luxury boxes. The city refused to build him a new stadium, so after the 1995 season, he moved the franchise to Baltimore, where they became the Ravens.

Cleveland didn’t let the team go without a fight. The city sued Modell for more than $300 million as fans marched on the stadium carrying signs reading “Art the Ripper.” At one game, a fan sat a Modell effigy in an electric chair with a sign reading “Pull the Switch,” while another group marched around the parking lot carrying a coffin.

After a settlement with the league and the city, Modell wound up owing Cleveland $12 million in damages, and the NFL promised to put an expansion team in the city. That team, the current Browns, started play in 1999. Even then, Cleveland fans didn’t exactly forgive Modell.

‘Can’t Forgive’

“We fought in the Second World War and the Japanese and Germans killed thousands of our people, and they are our friends today,” former Browns guard John Wooten said in an interview after Modell stepped down in 2004. “But there are people in Cleveland today who still can’t forgive Art for taking his team to Baltimore. It’s an injustice.”

Saddled with $185 million of debt he incurred during the move, Modell agreed in December 1999 to sell a 49 percent stake in the team to Stephen Bisciotti, owner of temporary-employment company Allegis Group Inc.

Modell in 1969 married Patricia Breslin, who starred in the 1950s television show “People’s Choice” and played Meg Baldwin on TV’s “General Hospital.” He adopted her two sons, John and David, from a previous marriage. She died Oct. 12, 2011, at the age of 80.

Modell is survived by his two sons and six grandchildren.