Why Browns ownership has turned focus to a FirstEnergy Stadium overhaul

CLEVELAND, Ohio (92.3 The Fan) – The ownership of the Cleveland Browns appear to be moving full steam ahead in pursuit of a massive renovation of FirstEnergy Stadium instead of a new stadium or dome.

Here’s why.

Soaring construction costs around the country make a new stadium – or even a dome – essentially a non-starter, unless the city of Cleveland, Cuyahoga County and the state of Ohio are able to find a few billion dollars hiding under a mattress somewhere.

So, renovation of the lakefront stadium that was obsolete the day it opened in 1999 and got a $120 million facelift in 2014-15 it is.

“Cleveland would benefit tremendously from the development of the waterfront,” Jimmy Haslam said at the NFL owner’s meetings in Arizona via ClevelandBrowns.com. “Having the stadium down there seems to be in everybody’s best interest, so we're committed to redoing the stadium.

“In all likelihood, it's not going to have a dome, but it'll be a substantial remodel of the existing facility, and we're probably three, four, five years away from that happening.”

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The Browns lease expires after the 2028 NFL season and to stay on the lakefront the Haslams would like to see the land around the stadium finally developed.

To be clear, the Haslams are not threatening to move the team and that is not even on the radar, but FirstEnergy Stadium is no longer competitive in the NFL’s stadium landscape and bringing it up to par with newer buildings that have opened or are in the planning stages won’t be easy because of the original design and construction that was constrained by cost overruns, cuts, retrofits and a tight timeline.

More importantly, the Haslams would like their overhaul of the stadium to fit within whatever the city of Cleveland has planned for the lakefront.

In December, Cleveland city council approved funding for a comprehensive lakefront development study, which will take about a year to complete.

The team has had ongoing conversations with city officials, including Mayor Justin Bibb, about the stadium situation to ensure all options have been explored.

“I think the mayor has a really good plan,” Jimmy Haslam said. “He's working really hard. We're loving working with him and his team to put forth the best plan for Cleveland, and we want to be part of the story and help out any way we can. We believe it's critically important for the development of downtown to be an attractive city. The best cities in the country have great waterfronts, and I think it's really critical.”

Since the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame opened in September 1995, Cleveland has failed to develop the lakefront around it and make it a tourist destination. The Hall is developing plans for a $100 million expansion between the existing building and the Great Lakes Science Center.

Could or would a renovated and modernized stadium help? It remains to be seen but to attract massive year ‘round events like the Final Four or a Super Bowl, Cleveland needs a dome.

To add a roof over FirstEnergy Stadium would cost over $1 billion above and beyond the renovation and it would need to be an independent structure from the existing building, which was not designed to be able to carry a roof or larger canopy.

The Browns and Cleveland would be better off just building a new dome if that is a route that could be feasible – which Jimmy Haslam said this week isn’t likely.

A look at ongoing projects around the NFL makes that clear.

The Tennessee Titans a preparing to build a new $2.1 billion stadium in Nashville. The Buffalo Bills unveiled updated renderings for their new $1.4 billion stadium this week. The city of Chicago has offered a $2.2 billion overhaul of Soldier Field that includes a roof, which was rebuilt after FirstEnergy Stadium opened, to keep the Bears downtown but the team appears poised to opt for a multi-billion project in the suburbs.

The Kansas City Chiefs, Carolina Panthers and Washington Commanders continue to work on new stadium plans, the costs of which start well north of $1 billion.

In May 2021 the Haslam Sports Group released spectacular renderings of what they envisioned could be a new look for Cleveland’s waterfront that includes a land bridge connecting to downtown, multiple green spaces, new office towers, retail, housing and even a new marina.

The city is seeking consultation on their own plan.

“I think it's a year-long phase,” Dee Haslam said via the team website. “We're hoping to help out in any way we can. It's a long process, but I think they're doing it right because they want to make sure they have a lot of community input on how it works and what the community wants.”

HKS architects, who designed SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles, US Bank Stadium for the Vikings, AT&T Stadium for the Cowboys as well as expansion of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, have been working with the Browns on stadium planning and design.

Browns ownership and the team has not gotten specific about what changes they would seek with another stadium renovation but based on recent surveys sent to fans and looking around the NFL landscape, changes to the existing seating bowl are going to be required.

The concourses, which are pretty tight for a building that isn’t even 30 years old, need to be expanded. So would the specialized club amenities, including field level viewing. The Browns hope to receive approval to expand their field level seating offerings, which debuted last season, this fall pending NFL approval.

The service level, which only spans half of the stadium running from the northeast corner around the north side to the west end, would need to be expanded to the south side of the stadium – and that kind of work is extremely expensive.

It is feasible that a massive renovation of FirstEnergy Stadium could cost upwards of a billion alone.

That doesn’t include the cost of development around the stadium – or connecting the lakefront to downtown, which should have been done decades ago.

“There's a lot of infrastructure that has to go into connecting downtown, which is the first thing that has to happen,” Jimmy Haslam said. “We've got to connect downtown to the waterfront, right? Everybody knows that. So you've got to relocate the highway … I do think the city, the county and the state are working together well, but there's a lot of hoops to jump through.”

Infrastructure studies to determine the feasibility of addressing those problems have been underway for over a year.

The Haslams are seeking a public-private partnership, which means they are not picking up the full tab when it comes to the stadium, and because of Art Modell, that’s how the business of professional sports operates – except in California where the San Francisco Giants, San Francisco 49ers, Golden State Warriors, Los Angeles Rams, Los Angeles Clippers have all managed to privately finance new stadiums and arenas over the last two decades.

The moral of the story is the Browns are committed to the lakefront because they have to be, and so now their time and energy is being spent on making that the best it can be because a new stadium or dome – barring a miraculous change of events – is not happening.

“I think we're just going to support the mayor and their plan,” Dee Haslam said, “and I think whatever they ask us to do, we will. We'll be willing to help out in any way we can.”

Unless someone has a few billion laying around and are willing to build a new stadium, a fancier version of FirstEnergy Stadium and the limitations that come with it is going to be as good as the future home of the Browns will get.

Featured Image Photo Credit: Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects, Osborn Engineering, AoDK Architecture and CallisonRTKL via the Cleveland Browns.