Here’s one to make Cleveland fans shake their heads: A partial owner of the hated Pittsburgh Steelers is buying the Browns.
A person with knowledge of the sale told the Associated Press on Thursday that Browns owner Randy Lerner has reached a deal to sell the team to Tennessee truck-stop magnate Jimmy Haslam III — a minority stockholder in the rival Steelers.
Lerner will sell 70 percent of the Browns to Haslam now, with the other 30 percent reverting to him four years after the closing date, the person said on condition of anonymity because the sale has not officially been announced.
Haslam was expected to be introduced as the new owner at a news conference on Friday.
While the papers have been signed, the NFL still must approve the sale. Approval from 24 of the 32 teams is required, and no date has been set for a vote because the sale has not been presented to the league yet. The person said approval is expected by the end of September.
ESPN reported the sale price was more than $1 billion. For comparison, the Miami Dolphins sold at a value of more than $1 billion in 2009.
The Browns were valued at $977 million last year by Forbes magazine, 20th in the NFL.
Asked about Haslam last week, Browns President Mike Holmgren said: “He is a very impressive man when you read about him, and people that I have talked to who know him say he is a tremendous guy.”
Lerner, whose family has owned the franchise since it returned to the NFL in 1999, first announced he was in negotiations to sell the club last week. The late Al Lerner, Randy’s father, purchased the franchise from the NFL in 1998 for $530 million after the original Browns moved to Baltimore in 1996 and became the Ravens. The elder Lerner died in 2002.
Randy Lerner also is the owner of Aston Villa, a club in the English Premier League.
The expansion Browns entered the NFL in 1999 and have made the playoffs once, a 2002 first-round loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. They’ve had only two winning records in 13 seasons and are 68-140 since they returned.
Even with a string of failures on the field, the value of the Browns — like other NFL franchises — keeps increasing, boosted by broadcast income. The league agreed in December to nine-year contracts with CBS, Fox and NBC that run through the 2022 season and will boost revenue from the $1.93 billion last season to $3.1 billion by 2022. The NFL reached an eight-year extension with ESPN last year through the 2021 season that increases the rights fee from $1.1 billion to $1.9 billion annually.
Haslam has been a minority investor in the Steelers since 2008, and is the president and CEO of Pilot Flying J, the largest operator of travel centers and travel plazas in North America. He is the older brother of Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam.
According to a 2010 profile on Steelers.com, Haslam has been a Dallas Cowboys and then an Indianapolis Colts fan. But with the Pittsburgh investment, Haslam said he had become “1,000 percent a Steelers fan.”
The Haslam brothers are supporters of the University of Tennessee, where their father Jim Haslam played tackle on the 1951 national championship football team under Gen. Robert R. Neyland, who built the Volunteers into a football powerhouse.
The elder Haslam founded the Pilot Corp. in 1958 with a single gas station in Gate City, Va. He credits sons Bill and Jimmy with expanding the chain from mostly gas stations and convenience stores to a “travel center” concept of truck stops featuring branded fast food service.
As for Haslam possibly moving the franchise, Holmgren emphatically added, “The Cleveland Browns aren’t going anywhere.”
But the current staff might be if the Browns don’t do better than the 4-12 record of 2011, Pat Shurmur’s first season as coach. New owners usually bring in their own management team, although Shurmur has impressed many people around the league.
“I have no fear about any of that because I trust my coaches, I trust the players and I’ve watched the work they’ve done based on the conversation of this last week,” Shurmur said Thursday. “I think we’re moving full steam ahead. That doesn’t bother me one bit at this point at this point. My concern is getting this team ready to play and our players understand that message and they are doing a good job.”
Last week, Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson sought to deflect any talk of the city losing the Browns again.
“The 30-year lease to the Cleveland Browns commenced in 1999 and continues to 2029,” Jackson’s office said in a statement.
“This lease, like the prior Municipal Stadium lease for which the City of Cleveland successfully obtained an injunction in 1995, requires the Browns to play all their regular season and playoff home games in the Cleveland Browns Stadium. If this requirement is not honored the city has legal options that could be pursued if necessary.”
The Browns have sold out all 104 home games since returning to the NFL.
Haslam would be the sixth majority owner of the Browns: team founder Mickey McBride (1945-1953), David Jones (1953-1961), Art Modell (1961-1995), Al Lerner (1998-2002), and Randy Lerner (2002-present). An NFL trust also oversaw the inactive franchise from 1996-1998.
— Associated Press