After the world was done with Nazi destroying in 1945, it had a break of about 72-ish years before it needed to use that energy again, so the people of the world - Americans, especially - put it to use in many ways. Apart from erecting media monoliths, creating art, having lots and lots of children, engaging in rampant boardroom misogyny (Mad Men was, and still is real folks) — sports were just another way that all that energy was used up. Teams popped up, leagues grew massive, rabid followings and sport found itself as much a part of the ‘Star Spangled Banner’ as other American traditions, like eating lots of barbecue, launching state-sponsored coups and hating communists among other things.
But sport? Sport was peaceful. Well, until it came into the industrial towns and cities of the United States, and rage evolved into rage and escapism became life. As people lost their jobs to forces so far out of their control they might as well have been a grain of sand - sports became all they had, and they would show it with an almost religious backing of their Colts, their Bears, their Packers and their Browns.
The Cleveland Browns sprung up out of post-war Ohio as an anomaly. Paul Brown, a legend of coaching in the state, reluctantly gave his name to his new team. Thus Brown’s Cleveland team became the Cleveland Browns. Brown helped kickstart life for the Browns, who simply couldn’t stop winning. Until they stopped winning. The Browns defined heartbreak and their post-war championships are forgotten in favour of the sporting tragedies that would occur again and again under the floodlights of American footballing turf.
‘The Drive’ saw John Elway steal the hopes of the Cleveland faithful with a two-minute rampage that the Browns couldn’t answer. Just a year later, the Browns stole defeat from the jaws of victory with ‘The Fumble’ - when a last second mistake doomed the team. Despite the pain, Cleveland natives stood by their teams, or their team.
In the Nineties, hope sprung through again. Any Browns fan will know very well - more than any other team in the world of sports, that hope is a dangerous thing. It’s the type of thing that leads you to lay down a mortgage on season tickets, or the type of thing that sends you around the country following disappointment from Pittsburgh to Los Angeles at a high cost. However, things were really looking good for the Browns.
Ever heard of Bill Belichick? Of course you have. He’s the weird uncle that hangs around the New England Patriots - making them perhaps the best sporting dynasty of all time, and the most deplorable. However, Bill didn’t just turn up at the Patriots. He was resurrecting the sleeping giant on the banks of Lake Erie. The city that had seen it all from ‘Balloonfest’ to ‘Ten Cent Beer Night’ finally might have something to cheer about - the first championship in a lifetime. Something special was being built at the Municipal Stadium, something that the vicious, passionate fanbase could back and roar into life from their ‘Dawg Pound’. The Dawgs would bark with every exciting defensive play and make their presence known by showering the opposing team with bones, food, cans and whatever they could smuggle into the ground. The Dawg Pound gained a reputation, and those barks and screams could be heard echoing along the lake.
Until it all went quiet.
Art Modell, the owner of the Browns, chose 1995 - the dawn of a new day in Cleveland sporting history - to become the biggest black mark in the history of sports in the city. The success of the Browns was hitting Modell in the pocket, and his attempt at constructing a new stadium, or finding a away to alleviate the costs of the team without selling up were curtailed. In lieu of finding an actual solution to the issue - Modell quite literally took his ball and went. The team knew something was up, and got off their 1995 season to a bad start. Then, in November - it got a little worse.
Modell’s ball was heading to Baltimore, and the team - the Browns (founded and named after an Ohio legend) were hightailing it out of the state, to Maryland to become the Baltimore Browns, with all the history and colours and names and team. Everything was getting packed up and shipped on.
On the face of it, Modell seemed to be ‘in the right’. His demand for a new stadium (one that would alleviate his financial pressures, and make him filthy rich) was rejected. Cleveland Municipal stadium was over sixty years old, and new owners with new stadiums were making big money - while Modell - stuck in Cleveland with a rabid fanbase - wasn’t. News leaked in November that the Browns were heading to Baltimore and further news leaked of the backroom deals and stealthy negotiations that had assassinated the team and any hopes of a 1995 championship.
Ironically, Maryland and it’s governors had tried so very hard to grab a sporting franchise because their own, the Colts, was ripped away from Baltimore to Indianapolis overnight. That they would help inflict their pain on another city is truly irony in its highest form. That they would collude with the league and Modell is a story that seems too strange to be true.
To say the city of Cleveland went anything other than batshit insane after hearing the news would be an understatement. Congresspeople, lawyers, fans and citizens went wild. The city of Cleveland filed plenty of motions and did almost everything they could to settle the situation - but it was far too late. This deal was done.
Perhaps the biggest saving grace, and this goes as a testament to the lawyers and season ticket holders backing the Browns, is that they were able to inadvertently save their team. The NFL agreed to leave the history, name and logo of the team in Cleveland, where it belonged - while Modell would have to operate a new franchise down in Baltimore. The bittersweet cost was that the Browns would be ‘reactivated’ within three years as an expansion team. As news broke, the footage of Browns fans holding onto their players in the hope that they’d never go is as raw and stirring as sporting news footage goes.
That didn’t keep the fans happy though. Modell and the NFL were taunted by the Cleveland faithful, who on the last day of the season - tore the stadium apart with wrenches and hammers. Taking their own piece of the stadium with them. The last memories of ‘their’ Browns.
Modell, and the NFL both helped perform an abortion on Cleveland’s biggest baby. Anyone who can remember the Browns of 1995 knows very well in their heart that success was on the cards. And it would happen, not for the Browns, but the team they were transformed into. The Baltimore Ravens would win a Superbowl within years, based on Belichick’s building blocks. Many Browns fans would find their only solace in hearing news of Art Modell’s death.
The situation of the Cleveland Browns is largely unique, but the general scenario isn’t. Teams have been packed and shipped around the States for as long as there has been a team to pack up and ship around. The Rams moved from Cleveland to LA to St Louis and back again, chasing new stadium deals. The Chargers moved to LA, the Raiders have been all over the place. This isn’t just American football though. Baseball, hockey and football teams are moved when ‘the situation’ demands it. When tax dollars dry up, when attendances dwindle - a team will move. If it doesn’t, it will do its damn best to construct a new stadium and then move. The story of American sports over the past twenty years has been as much ‘will my team exist in ten years’ as it has Lombardi Trophies and Stanley Cups. While for most, the team will stay there - it’s always a possibility.
The reason I spoke at length about the Browns is because of their connection to Villa. It’s not just about the fact that at one point, the pair of teams was owned by the same bloke - but because the sporting history of the Browns matches up with our Villa. Proud history, bright future and all that. Imagine if that ever happened to the Villans?
Relocation, relocation and relocation is on my mind because of the situation surrounding another Ohio based team - Columbus Crew of Major League Soccer. It is heavily rumoured that the Crew will move to Austin, Texas - to bring MLS to that particular city instead of creating a new franchise. Much like the Browns, it revolves around a problematic stadium, possible lack of tax dollars and more. Every sporting league in America seems to be heavily skilled at the particular racket of extortion. If your city isn’t paying up, the team will simply disappear. Stadiums are funded in part by owners, but also the citizens of the city. It’s a complex scenario, but again - cities will be held hostage by sports teams, and their venture capitalist owners, who will bleed cities dry before heading off to find their next victim. Again, the situation isn’t as cut-and-dry as ‘evil rich white boy runs off with team’, but for the most part, it’s exactly that.
And the leagues? They don’t care. Your team is gone? Fine, they’ll find a new one for you. Some local consortium or a rich foreign group will bankroll the funding of a new team, until that disappears. This isn’t just an MLS problem, but an NFL, MLB and Major League Everything Else issue. Teams will buy in with big fees, dry up the city and move on, then move back. It happens because it works. The Browns were ‘saved’ possibly because it was highly likely that there would be major anarchy in the city for a period of time following heated protests. The league will bankroll the production of scarves, colours, shirts, banners, mascots, fan groups and flags - then when the time comes, they will play a big part in taking it away.
Team relocation is becoming a regular thing once more in the USA. MLB might expand (which will lead to contraction, mark my words) with two more teams. The Chargers and Raiders have moved. The Rams moved. Columbus Crew will move. This will stop, because people will catch on. Soon, there will be too many new teams for fans to care. If the New York Red Bulls or Real Salt Lake, or Houston Dynamo die out, will their diehards latch onto the next team? Who knows. The constant state of relocation will cause questioning within fanbases. If fans are asking themselves if supporting a team is worth it, and the basis of that question revolves around something that isn’t the on-field product, there’s a problem.
That’s why today, after reading countless articles on the Columbus Crew, I’m just thinking of my Villa and Villa Park down the road and the fact that, hopefully, we will never have to face the harsh reality of sports on the other side of the Atlantic. The worst thing an owner could do to us in America is take us to the other side of the country. Here? They could just get us relegated or folded - but that spirit never dies - not like it would if the team was stolen from us. I’m just so very grateful that ‘will my team exist in the next five years’ isn’t a question I have to think about, let alone answer.
And let’s face the reality of it. If Aston Villa were based in a country as big as America, we’d have bee shipped off years ago. Poor attendances, a sound but ageing stadium - would our city foot the bill for us? Of course not. We’d be gone. We’d be Columbus Crew - who are still a bit more successful than Aston Villa in recent years! Our Villa Park will seemingly always be there. I guess that’s something that fans at the Municipal thought about their Cleveland Browns, though.
When Peter Thiel bankrolled the utter destruction of a news outlet and heralded the age of ‘fake news’ it wasn’t a new thing. For centuries, billionaires and millionaires have been destroying mostly everything we attach ourselves to. For you, it’s your Columbus Crew, your Cleveland Browns. To them? It’s an accessory, an asset. Thankfully, Lake Erie isn’t that quiet anymore.