During the 1940s and 1950s, he worked in advertising, public relations and television production in New York City. He purchased the Cleveland Browns in 1961 for $4 million, investing only $250,000 of his own money (he borrowed $2.7 million and found partners for the rest).
Unlike the Browns' previous owners, Modell immediately took an active role in the management of the team, and fired legendary coach Paul Brown on January 9, 1963. He did so because Brown ignored his suggestions and overshadowed Modell. Paul Brown had won 7 league championships previous to Modell's acquisition of the team. After firing Brown, Modell quickly named Brown's assistant, Blanton Collier, as the new coach on January 16, 1963. The 1964 team, which won the 1964 championship, consisted of many players initially selected by Brown. However, some players, Jim Brown among them, said that the team wouldn't have won had Paul Brown still been the coach. During the next 30 years in Cleveland, not a single Modell team won the league title. Prior to Modell's arrival, the Browns had dominated the NFL and AAFC, winning 7 championships in 17 years.
Using his background in advertising to market the team, Modell showed a flair for promotions, with one popular innovation coming in 1962 by scheduling pro football preseason doubleheaders at Cleveland Stadium. In addition, Modell became active in NFL leadership, serving as NFL President and using his television connections to help negotiate the league's increasingly lucrative television contracts. Modell also was willing to provide his team as an opponent for both the first prime time Thanksgiving game in 1966 and the opening Monday Night Football broadcast in 1970.
Modell took an active role in Cleveland community life and was a leading fundraiser for charities and various Republican Party candidates. He married TV soap opera star Patricia Breslin in 1969, having previously been a well known man about town. For many years he was able to disarm newspaper and TV reporters with his quick wit. For example, with regard to the NFL's innovative policy of sharing all network television revenue on an equal basis per team, so that the Green Bay Packers and New York Giants each got an equal slice of the revenue, he joked, "We're 26 Republicans who vote Socialist!"
However, that ingratiating manner did not always translate into smooth relationships with his employees. In 1967, five African American members of the Browns involved in a contract dispute refused to report to training camp. Modell eventually traded or released four of the players, with only standout running back Leroy Kelly staying. Kelly would go on to "play out his option" but the restrictive nature of free agency in the NFL at the time severely limited his options.
Subsequent contract battles with defensive end Jack Gregory in 1971 and second-round draft pick Tom Skladany in 1977 only served to damage Modell's image among Cleveland fans. Feeling that the constant sellouts the team had enjoyed should be used to bolster the team, fan animosity manifested itself with anti-Modell stadium banners that were quickly removed by Cleveland Stadium management.
Modell took control of Cleveland Municipal Stadium in 1973, which had been owned by the City of Cleveland but had become too expensive for the city to operate or maintain. He worked out a deal with the city whereby his newly formed entity, dubbed Stadium Corp., would rent the stadium from the City for $1 per year, assume all operating and repair costs and would sublease the stadium to its two primary tenants, the Browns and the Cleveland Indians, Cleveland's franchise in the American League of Major League Baseball.
In so doing, Modell effectively became the landlord of the Indians. This was a good business decision even though the Indians were unsuccessful throughout the 1970s and 1980s and drew small crowds during this period, because the Browns were essentially paying rent to themselves and because Modell, by constructing luxury suites in the ballpark, generated large cash flows from the suite rentals which he did not share with the Indians. Modell later alleged that the suites were unsuccessful because he had borrowed the money for construction at the high interest rates that then prevailed, however, he has not accounted for why the revenue the suites generated wasn't used to pay down the debt.
Modell's Stadium Corporation also promoted very successful rock concerts at the stadium, including The World Series of Rock. These concerts drew large crowds that, unfortunately, damaged the baseball playing field.
Stadium Corp. and Modell were implicated in a lawsuit brought by Browns minority shareholder Robert Gries of Gries Sports Enterprises, who successfully alleged that Stadium Corp. manipulated the Browns' accounting records to help Stadium Corp. and Modell absorb a loss on real property that had been purchased in the Cleveland suburb of Strongsville as a potential site for a new stadium. The lawsuit, Gries Sports Enterprises v. Cleveland Browns Football Co., 26 Ohio St. 3d 15 (1986), was a leading Ohio case concerning a corporate officer's fiduciary duty toward shareholders.
By the 1990s, Modell was disturbed at what he saw as the financial distress of the Browns and the Stadium Corp., as recounted in detail in the book Fumble: The Browns, Modell, & the Move by Michael G. Poplar with James A. Toman (ISBN 0-936760-11-7) which was written by a Modell associate and longtime Browns employee. Less charitable portraits of Modell are contained in the books Glory for Sale: Inside the Browns' Move to Baltimore & the New NFL by Jon Morgan (ISBN 0-9631246-5-X) and Pay Dirt: the Business of Professional Team Sports by James Quirk and Rodney D. Fort (ISBN 0-691-01574-0).
Simultaneously with Modell's concerns, the Indians were dissatisfied with Modell's Stadium Corp. as their landlord. Modell did not share the suite revenues from baseball games with the Indians. Also, rock concerts damaged the playing field during baseball season, and Modell wouldn't spend any money to improve their clubhouse. As a result, the Indians alleged they could not attract high-quality free-agent players. Eventually the Indians prevailed upon the City of Cleveland and Cuyahoga County to subsidize a new ballpark (which became known as Jacobs Field) for their exclusive use so that they could get out from under Modell's thumb.
In turn, Modell was dissatisfied with the Indians' new ballpark because Stadium Corp.'s suite rental renvenue decreased once Jacobs Field opened. Many suite customers switched their business from Cleveland Stadium's older suites to Jacobs Field's newer suites, especially because Modell's Stadium Corp. refused to decrease the annual rent for the suites even though the events for which the suites could be used decreased substantially (81 home games) with the loss of the Indians as a tenant.
Modell declined to become a tenant in Cleveland's new Gateway Sports and Entertainment Complex, instead asking for improvements to Municipal Stadium. Because Modell's Stadium Corp. still controlled Municipal Stadium, it may have made more business sense for Modell to try to keep the Indians at Municipal, particularly as the baseball team began to show signs of improvement both on the playing field and at the box office. (The Indians went on to play in the World Series in 1995 and 1997, and sold out 455 straight games at Jacobs Field from 1995 until 2001.)
When the Indians and the City of Cleveland declined to abandon the Gateway Project and improve Municipal Stadium as Modell asked, Modell broke off negotiations with the City and County and decided to move the team to Baltimore for the 1996 season. He was assisted in the move by Alfred Lerner, who would go on to become the owner of the new Cleveland Browns franchise in 1998. Modell's move returned the NFL to Baltimore for the first time since the Colts left for Indianapolis after the 1983 season.
The reaction in Cleveland was, not surprisingly, very hostile. Modell had promised numerous times never to move the team. The Brooklyn native mentioned numerous times how saddened and betrayed he and other Brooklynites had felt when the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles in 1957, he had publicly criticized the Baltimore Colts move to Indianapolis and he had testified in favor of the NFL in court cases where the league unsuccessfully tried to stop Al Davis from moving the Oakland Raiders from Oakland to Los Angeles. The City of Cleveland sued Modell, the Browns, Stadium Corp, the Maryland Stadium Authority and the authority's director, John A. Moag Jr., in City of Cleveland v. Cleveland Browns, et al., Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas Case No. CV-95-297833, for breaching the Browns' lease, which required the team to play its home games at Cleveland Stadium for several years beyond 1995. Surprisingly for Modell, many Baltimore fans sympathized with Clevelanders' outrage. Baltimore was still smarting from Colts owner Robert Irsay's behavior in the run-up to the Colts' move a decade earlier, culminating in the team being literally sneaked out of town in the middle of the night in late March 1984. Many people in Baltimore felt Irsay had stolen Baltimore's football history as well. They felt that Modell would be doing the same thing to Cleveland if he went with his initial plan to call his team the "Baltimore Browns."
Eventually, the NFL and the parties worked out a deal. The Browns' franchise would be deactivated for three years. Modell had to leave behind the Browns' name, colors and heritage (including team records) for a replacement franchise, in the form of either a new team or a relocated franchise. In return, Modell would be allowed to take his players and organization to Baltimore as the Ravens. Cleveland received a loan from the NFL to help with the cost of a new stadium. The Browns were resurrected in 1999. Many sportswriters and commentators in and outside of Cleveland reviled him, saying the honorable course would have been to sell the team to local interests. It is widely believed that the acrimony from the move has kept Modell out of the Pro Football Hall of Fame (he was an also-ran in the 2006 voting). To this day, he is considered to be the most hated man in Cleveland and has not returned to the city since 1996. For example, when his longtime friend, Browns kicking legend Lou "The Toe" Groza, died in 2000, Modell didn't feel safe attending the funeral.
When the final game was played in Cleveland Municipal Stadium in 1995, there were more people outside it protesting the move and the lies told by Modell than inside enjoying their last browns game. The protesters were never acknowledged by the NBC announcing crew. Former NFL Head coach Mike Ditka said, "...these are the best fans in the nfl. i said that when i came here with my bears.[they] don't deserve this, if Art Modell had any sort of sense of dignity he would have sold the team."
In an ironic twist, many Baltimore fans, including several prominent old-time Colts players who live in the area, consider the Ravens to be the successors of the Baltimore Colts. Johnny Unitas and other former Colts were so upset at the way Irsay treated Baltimore that they cut all ties to the relocated Colts team.
Soon after Modell moved to Baltimore, he sold a minority interest to Maryland businessman Steve Bisciotti. After owning an NFL team for 44 seasons, Modell sold controlling interest of the team to Bisciotti in 2003, citing ill health. However, Bisciotti had the option to buy the team at that point after becoming a minority owner in 1999. Modell retains a 1% share and has an office at the Ravens headquarters in Owings Mills, Maryland.
He retained an interest as a legal maneuver to avoid a claim by the Andrews trust, which was controlled by family of a former business adviser who sought to collect an estimated $30 million finder's fee upon Modell's sale of the team to Bisciotti. The Andrews trust essentially claimed that under a 1963 agreement Modell owed a finder's fee for his original purchase of the team which was to be paid when Modell sold his entire interest. In July 2005, Modell prevailed in court and defeated the claim. http://www.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_qn4183/is_20050726/ai_n14803421
Modell's father George and the founder of the Modell's chain of sporting goods stores, Henry Modell, were brothers.http://www.usatoday.com/sports/football/nfl/ravens/2003-12-26-modell_x.htm