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Could Ohio's 'Art Modell' law keep the Browns in Cleveland?

Cleveland Browns fans pack FirstEnergy Stadium in Cleveland.
Keith Srakocic
Cleveland Browns Stadium sits on lakefront land between Downtown Cleveland and Lake Erie. In this file photo, Cleveland Browns fans watch the kickoff of an NFL football game between the Cleveland Browns and the New York Jets, Sunday, Sept. 18, 2022, at what was then called FirstEnergy Stadium in Cleveland.

As the Cleveland Browns consider a move to Brook Park, members of Cleveland City Council are seeking to use a state law to make the move more challenging.

The "Art Modell" law, named for the former Browns owner who moved the team to Baltimore in 1996, requires Ohio owners whose teams play in taxpayer-funded stadiums to get permission from their home city or give six-month notice with a chance for the city or an investor “in the area” to offer to buy the team.

Cleveland City Council last week passed an ordinance that requires the city's law director to enforce the policy if the Browns attempt to leave Cleveland. This came after renderings of a $2.4 billion domed stadium plan near the Cleveland Hopkins International Airport leaked.

But the law's ambiguity, especially the clause about allowing area residents the chance to buy the team, may make it largely ineffective, said Cleveland State University law professor emeritus Alan Weinstein. He said the law was likely written to prevent teams from moving outside the region or state, pointing to the Baltimore relocation, for example.

"So it has to be in the area of Cleveland," Weinstein said. "If that can apply to a suburb that actually borders the city of Cleveland — then it doesn't have any meaning at all."

Even if the law were to be enacted, Weinstein says the six-month notice would have very little impact on the Browns because new stadiums take a long time to build.

"When we think about what it takes to move a professional football team, which is a lot of time and money, constructing a new domed stadium... a six-month delay is nothing," he said.

There's also nothing in the law that requires the owners to accept any outside offers from the city or other investors.

Most realistically, Weinstein said the most the Browns would face is potential bad press from a potential lawsuit from the city, which he said would likely be "no big deal" to the Haslams, the billionaires who own the team.

This isn't the first time the Haslams have dealt with the Art Modell law — though last time, they were on the other end of things. In 2018, Jimmy Haslam and another investor purchased the Columbus Crew when the professional soccer team eyed a move to Austin, Texas.

But because the team did not move away, Weinstein said the largely-unused law's constitutionality and effectiveness remain in question.

Even still, Cleveland leadership is scrambling to keep the Browns Downtown ahead of the lease expiration in 2028. Mayor Justin Bibb has been tight-lipped about the status of ongoing negotiations, saying leaders are in "close communication" with the Haslams. The owners reportedly want the city to foot the bill for about half the estimated $2.4 billion new stadium development in Brook Park or $1 billion in renovations to the existing Downtown Stadium.

The city recently doubled its budget for the design phase of its waterfront redevelopment plans, which Ideastream reported now imagines a lakefront with or without the stadium.

"It's not at all unusual for a football team to have its stadium not in the city," Weinstein said. "The New York Jets, the New York Giants: they play their games in New Jersey."

Abbey Marshall covers Cleveland-area government and politics for Ideastream Public Media.