Being a Cleveland Browns fan is tough.
It means an annual summer of cautious optimism and hope that the new front office, coach or quarterback will be the one to turn the team’s painful fortunes mixed with the quiet dread of knowing that for 13 of the past 15 years the Browns have looked, played and won like a first-year expansion team.
Even the allegedly neutral sports media and fans of other teams have expressed sympathy for Browns fans. Usually the empathizers use some variation of the phrase “that city and the fans deserve a winning team” and it is uttered/written with an undercurrent of outright pity.
Receiving pity from your rival team’s fans borders on being un-American.
Consider these cold, hard facts about the business of the Cleveland Browns.
• Since 1999, the team has the worst record in football (77-163), tied with the Detroit Lions.
• The Browns have scored the least amount of points since returning to the NFL as an expansion team with a storied history.
• FirstEnergy Stadium will receive $120 million in upgrades of which the city of Cleveland will contribute $2 million annually for the next 15 years.
So the obvious question is why. Why do millions of folks in Ohio, throughout the country and the Browns Backers dotting the globe spend their hard-earned money going to games, buying paraphernalia, emptying the taps and filling the cash registers at local sports bars for a team that at least on the surface seems to give so little back to them?
We asked readers to write in and tell us why they still love the Browns, why they stopped loving the Browns or why they can’t seem to quit on a team that often appears to have quit on them.
Hope after hope
“I’m 76. I’m from Akron. … I’ve been watching, and even following the Bengals for 24 years. But when asked, I’m a Browns fan. As I say to them, ‘I’ve been a Browns fan since your dead founder was our coach. And I remember why they are called the Browns. I watched him run.’ … I’m a fan of this team that represents Cleveland and Akron and Canton. I’m a fan of the players that are trying. I hope someday the people in charge will get it right and give the players and their crazy fans their due.”
— Jack Robinson,
Nearly 100 fans and former fans from all over the country responded, including 30-year, season-ticket holder Maryanne Bates of Akron who wrote a 1,500-plus-word essay on her continued love affair with the team.
“I have rejoiced in great wins and cried at losses,” said Bates a former Beacon Journal sports statistician. “My chest still tightens, tears well up and my voice cracks when there is talk of the move of the NFL franchise from Cleveland.”
Then there is Jake Bogdanovich, 28, of Akron, who said: “I continually ask myself why I faithfully subject myself to the constant heartbreak and punishment. I finally found a legitimate answer this time, it improves my relationships with women. Sorta. My relationship with the Browns has been so abusive, destructive, heartbreaking, and emotional that no woman can ever do that much damage.”
On Thursday, after an exhaustive search that included the Browns being the last team to hire a head coach — in part because the team was spurned by most of its top candidates — the Browns brain trust of Jimmy Haslam, Joe Banner and Mike Lombardi, collectively dubbed the Three Stooges by fans, hired Buffalo Bills defensive coordinator Mike Pettine to steer the team, drawing a shrug from much of the fan base.
Nevertheless, many members of the Dawg Pound, Browns Backers and other lifelong fans simply can’t quit the team. Likewise, the city of Cleveland, which allowed the old Browns to leave and become the current NFL champion Baltimore Ravens, refuses to quit the “New Browns,” too.
And the team is a money maker. As of August 2013, the team’s value of $1.005 billion placed its worth at No. 22 of 32 NFL teams. Its revenue in 2012 was $264 million and its operating income was $17.1 million.
“Some things that show I’m a lifelong fan:
• [I] took my 4-month-old son to meet my wife’s extended family in Pittsburgh in a Browns’ outfit;
• [I] heard my [then] 3-year-old son say his first “bad words” — “Bernie, s**t. Bernie, s**t” repeating his mother’s exclamation as she heard Bernie Kosar get sacked while we listened to a game in our car.
• My wife and I celebrated our 24th anniversary watching the ’99 Browns play the Cowboys in the Hall of Fame Game.
• I was at the stadium for THE DRIVE game. (And, yes, l still hate Elway!)”
— Michael Pasko, 60,
Pasko’s response contains a common thread among the responders, namely the Browns have been an integral and often important part of fans’ families. For many, some of the best and worst memories of their lives are intertwined with and, in some cases, even shaped by the fortunes of the Browns.
Another recurring theme even among fans who weren’t born during the glory days was that Browns fans are noble sufferers. Rooting for a front-runner is easy, but staying loyal to a longtime loser takes character and a strong constitution.
Admiration for die-hards
“As a child of the ’90s … I certainly don’t have a lot of memories of them winning. However, as I began to understand and enjoy the game of football in my teenage years, I looked at the fans around me … and I couldn’t help but admire something about the die-hard Browns fans. ... It would be easy to root for a team that was regularly winning, but to stick it out through all the heartache the Browns put their fans through really said something about the caliber of their fans.”
— Angela Goodhart, 22, of Kent, a Northeast Ohio Medical University student.
And then there’s Mark Thut, 34, of Wooster, who said, “I have been a Browns fan my whole life and have attended about every game at the Factory of Sadness since 1999 except 10 games. I keep coming back every year because the year I stop will be the year they make the playoffs!”
Ah, yes, the now fabled “Factory of Sadness,” aka Browns Stadium and the title of local comedian and Browns season-ticket holder Mike Polk’s 71-second YouTube rant that has garnered more than 1.5 million views since being posted in 2011. The term has been embraced by many fans and appropriated for a website on the FanSided sports Web hub, factoryofsadness.co.
He’s a fan, but Cleveland Councilman Mike Polensek has been a strident voice against the Browns receiving more public money to upgrade FirstEnergy Stadium. The Collinwood neighborhood native is a former season-ticket holder and a councilman for more than three decades.
“Cleveland Browns fans are so loyal, probably to our demise,” Polensek said from his office overlooking what he still calls Browns Stadium. “It’s almost blind loyalty, regardless of the ridiculous things they do in the front office revolving chairs and the ongoing fiasco.”
Polensek said he has heard increasing anger from many of his constituents who wonder why the city would ask taxpayers to pay extra money to spruce up what has been the equivalent of a massive, high-tech, kitty litter box. No matter how pretty you make it on the outside, it’s still filled with poop.
“It’s all about money,” Polensek said. “They are souring this historic relationship and you can tell by how many people are saying they will vote down this extension of the sin tax. It’s going to be a tough sell.
Under the harsh, unflattering fluorescent lights of reason, one could argue that neither the city, the county nor the fan base has gotten what it collectively is still paying for: a competitive team.
For ex-fans who have managed to shut down the part of their heart that pumped orange and brown for much of their lives, what was the final straw? For Mike Bittaker, 57, of Green, it’s the front office. Like many fed-up fans, the current leadership gives him little hope for the foreseeable future.
“I compare the Browns to a fancy restaurant,” he said. “They have an irritating host (Joe Banner), a terrible cook (Mike Lombardi) and an owner (Jim Haslam) who may be dabbling in a bit of Waste Management. ... The food is terrible and the price is outrageous. … You go back a year later and it is worse. … There are plenty of other restaurants in the area to choose from. So long for now.”
Reader Craig Abram, 46, of Albany, N.Y., succinctly voiced the feelings of many longtime Browns who just can’t take anymore heartbreak.
“I was a die-hard as a kid …but as I have gotten older … I have decided that watching from afar is the only way. … No more emotion, no more wasted money, no more wasting time on Sundays … this team has been a joke since ’99, Abram said. “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over seeking different results … I am not insane, but investing anything into the Browns is INSANE.”
However, a few days later, Abram signed a second email to the Beacon Journal with “Go Browns!”