Art Modell forever will be known as the man who took the Browns out of Cleveland, but his legacy as one of the NFL's most influential personalities extends far beyond state lines. As an old-guard owner, he helped pour the foundation for today's game and presided over a host of landmark events.
The league's golden era was launched soon after he purchased the Browns franchise for a then-record price of just under $4 million in 1961. Among Modell's cornerstone moments:
** Because of a television background, he was named chairman of the broadcast committee in only his second year in the league. Along with commissioner Pete Rozelle, Modell struck a partnership with television executives that would open the financial floodgates to unimagined riches.
** He championed the cause of revenue sharing in the 1960s, convincing owners the league was only as strong as its weakest link. That concept enabled small-market teams to compete on equal terms with large-market teams and ranked as one of his greatest contributions.
** He directed negotiations that produced the league's first collective bargaining agreement with its players in 1968.
** He served on the committee that negotiated the NFL-AFL merger, and in 1969 he helped break the deadlock on realignment by agreeing to move the Browns to the small-market AFC.
** He helped negotiate the first Monday Night Football contract in 1970 and worked with Rozelle to establish NFL Films.
** With a strong record in diversity promotion, Modell made Ozzie Newsome the league's first African-American general manager late in 2002.
Such was Modell's influence that it would be extremely difficult – if not impossible – to write the history of the league without acknowledging his contributions of five decades. Modell died Thursday morning at Johns Hopkins Hospital.
“I think Art's major accomplishment was in broadcasting,” said Ralph Wilson, another old-guard owner and one of Modell's closest friends, of the Buffalo Bills. “He was very sharp in that field. He knew the officials, the presidents of the networks.
“Art always took the position, we didn't want to overplay our hand with the networks: ‘Hey, we can't push them to the wall and just pound them for every nickel. They're our partners.' Art was right; they are our partners. That was the way he operated.”
Prior to joining the NFL, Modell had formed his own television production company. In 1961, when the league persuaded Congress to pass a law permitting sports leagues to market their broadcast rights without fear of antitrust prosecution, Modell had the NFL in position to cut their own lucrative deals.
The league soon was signing multimillion-dollar broadcast deals and adding expansion teams. Over 31 years of negotiations, Modell watched the TV pot grow to astronomical heights. His final deal in 1990 was for four years and $3.6 billion from four networks. Altogether, the TV contracts he negotiated were worth more than $8 billion to the NFL, the richest in sports.
With the networks losing money in the early 1990s, Modell negotiated a rebate with his television partners. But the NFL's new breed of owner, led by Jerry Jones of the Dallas Cowboys, rejected the pay-backs. Since then, TV revenue has spiked even higher.
In the league's 2005 fiscal year, each team drew $87.5 million in national TV and radio revenue. Those numbers jumped again last year when the league negotiated a series of contracts with Fox, CBS, NBC and ESPN.
Modell was not only a television pioneer for the league, he was a visionary as well. In 1962, he decided to promote his new product with a preseason doubleheader in Cleveland Stadium. The Browns played the Pittsburgh Steelers in one game, and the Dallas Cowboys met the Detroit Lions in another.
Although league owners initially balked at the plan, Modell's idea was a success. He staged doubleheaders for 10 years and had nine sellouts. Eventually, the NFL would send exhibition games to remote corners of the country, growing their fan base.
“He's the reason that preseason football became a revenue strength,” said Ernie Accorsi, a former Browns general manager under Modell. “I grew up in Hershey [Pa.] and the Eagles played a couple games there. But the league played in North Platt, Neb., Roanoke, Va., and a million other places.”
Modell was as involved in his community as he was in his team. He was a major fundraiser for charity and in 1977 helped rescue the struggling Hotel Cleveland, a landmark building, by pooling resources from local institutions.
He also started the Inner Circle, a drug intervention program with the Browns that preceded the NFL's drug program.
Still, it was Modell's ability to cut through the NFL's red tape and find compromise that distinguished his stewardship. He was renowned for his wit. Ever ready with a punch line, he would use that skill to push the owners through contentious meetings.
“Art had the greatest sense of humor of anybody I ever met,” Wilson said. “When things would get tense in a meeting, he'd come up with a quip and break the tension.”
Dan Rooney, owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers, recalled how Modell would engage then-Minnesota Vikings owner Max Winter in story-telling at league gatherings.
“He was vying with Max over who would tell the best stories,” Rooney said. “There was a lot of fun in the league in those days.”
There would be no joking about the two biggest events in Modell's Cleveland era. In 1963 he fired legendary coach Paul Brown. In 1996 he moved the team.
“The year I fired Paul Brown, we came in second [in the NFL's Eastern Conference] and played in that runner-up bowl game [against the Green Bay Packers] down in Miami,” Modell said last fall. “Vince Lombardi called it the game for losers. We won the world's championship in 1964 [beating the Baltimore Colts, 27-0].
“Then the year when I moved the team, I was derided for that, unbelievably so. I finally found out who my friends were and who my friends were not. But the important thing is – I say this without any braggadocio – four years later we won the Super Bowl. The move had something to do with it. It gave the whole organization a feeling of optimism for the future.”
It was a decision Modell could not live down, however. Now it may be what he is most remembered for after 43 years as an owner.
“Unfortunately, that might happen, I don't know,” Rooney said. “If you look at it, two of his best friends were against him, Ralph and me. I thought being in a division with Cleveland was so important [to the Steelers].”
“I was sorry that Art moved, but I didn't know the circumstances,” Wilson said. “I don't think the people in Cleveland knew he was in such dire shape that he had to move. ... I'm sorry he didn't give the people a little more notice that he had problems.”
Will the move be his enduring legacy?
“I don't think it will be the lasting memory of those of us who know him who have any sense of history,” Accorsi said. “But unfortunately, that'll be something of an image. He'll never be forgiven in Cleveland."
Jon Morgan contributed to this article.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun