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With just over four years left on the the current lease, local leaders are now up against the clock to secure funding for a new or renovated stadium.
CLEVELAND — The dreams of an entire city are often tied to their sports teams, but big-league success doesn’t come cheap.
“For a sports team, it’s not strictly an economic decision; there’s a reputation factor that a city gets,” explained former Cuyahoga County Executive Armond Budish in a recent interview with 3News. “There’s a love for the teams that a city has, so you got to factor that in as well.”
As Budish sees it, Cleveland is fighting an uphill battle.
“Cleveland is the smallest metropolitan area with three major league sports teams — basketball, baseball, and football. That is an expensive proposition for a city or a county to have three major league teams.”
And with just over four years left on the lease at Cleveland Browns Stadium, local leaders are now up against the clock, engaging in ongoing talks with owners Dee and Jimmy Haslam about the future of the team and its home. Budish says those negotiations will look different from recent deals made with the Guardians and Cavaliers.
“The county, the city, and the state were able to pay for the renovations for the Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse and Progressive Field out of existing sources of funds,” he explained. “No new taxes were levied.”
Budish was at the table during the negotiations for those deals, which helped extend both leases into the next decade. But, he says, the Browns face different challenges — and different funding sources.
“That money is not there for a new or renovated Browns Stadium,” he told WKYC, “so they’re going to have to come up with a source for the funds.”
That’s because the “sin tax” on alcohol and tobacco only generates around $14 million dollars per year — split among all three teams equally to help fund renovations — and is set to expire in 2034. Just how much responsibility might ultimately fall on the average taxpayer is still unknown.
But that isn’t the only issue; location is also a key factor between keeping a renovated stadium in its current footprint or needing to build new.
“The city is looking at different lakefront development plans, including the land bridge idea and moving the freeway and other possibilities to make that more possible that there will be development around the stadium,” Budish said, “which then creates some more revenues for the city, county and the team.”
Yet in his State of the City speech last spring, Mayor Justin Bibb made his views clear, announcing he would no longer support using general revenue fund dollars for maintenance of a privately owned football franchise. Bibb also spoke about the need to get creative with financing.
“I think it’s important that we think differently about how this fits into a larger piece of making us have one of the best lakefronts in the world,” Bibb said at the time.
Budish, now the Mandel Public Service Executive in Residence at Cleveland State University, says state funding will also need to play a larger role.
“I don’t want to let the state off the hook here,” he noted. “The state of Ohio benefits by having sports teams play in their cities in the state, and especially the Browns and the Bengals. The state has some skin in this game, and needs to put some skin in the game financially.”
But the pressure is on, with the Cincinnati Bengals’ lease at Paycor Stadium set to expire even sooner in 2026. They, too, are exploring renovation plans.
“If the state has to double the number of dollars they’re going to have to pay, that creates more of an issue,” Budish said, “so we’re in a tough financial issue right now.”
A tough problem for a tough town. Yet despite the unknowns, Budish thinks the bigger picture is a positive one for Cleveland sports fans.
“Cleveland is a Browns town,” he said. “The fans, the residents love — let me underline, love — the Cleveland Browns. Even in the years where they’ve been horrible, the Browns fans come out and they watch, they support the team, and that’s big. That’s very significant, so I’m very optimistic that we’ll be able to keep all three teams.”
When reached for comment by 3News, the mayor’s office gave us the following statement:
“Senior leadership, with both the City of Cleveland and Haslam Sports Group, continue to meet monthly to discuss our shared vision for the lakefront.
“We are working collaboratively with all lakefront stakeholders to build a comprehensive and integrated pitch for revitalizing our Shore-to-Core-to-Shore (i.e. Cuyahoga River-Cleveland Browns Stadium-Lake Erie) – so that State and Federal partners understand the importance of this historic plan to redevelop America’s North Coast. Ideally, both parties would like a general commitment by the end of Q1 2024.”
According to Budish, remarks like this seem to point towards renovations and not an all-new stadium.