Browns exploring stadium options with focus on current stadium, lakefront development

CLEVELAND, Ohio (92.3 The Fan) – The Browns are in the process of evaluating their long-term future on the lakefront, but no decisions have been made multiple sources tell 92.3 The Fan.

That process, which is ongoing, began years ago. While they have scouted potential new stadium sites in recent years, the team is focused on their current location on the lakefront.

With the Browns lease up in seven years combined with the potential cost of another massive renovation or new build, the team feels the timing is right to begin the long-term planning process.

The Browns are currently conducting a feasibility study to determine the viability of remaining at and extending the life of FirstEnergy Stadium.

“As we have consistently communicated, along with the City of Cleveland, the Greater Cleveland Partnership and other prominent local organizations, we have been immersed in discussing ways to best approach the lakefront’s future and the stadium naturally is a critical piece to the long-term execution of such a project,” senior vice president of communications for Haslam Sports group Peter John-Baptiste said in a statement. “Contrary to recent speculation, a recent feasibility study we launched does not contemplate a new stadium or showcase new stadium sites. A significant stadium renovation at our current site is the premise of the study as well as a focus on how to provide accessibility to the lakefront, drive density and create 365-destination major development opportunities that would include new public parks, retail, office, experiential and residential spaces. The vision, as many in our community have already seen, is centered on an extensive land bridge.

“As we are just beginning the study, we certainly do not have enough information to determine the cost of renovating the stadium or what the aesthetics of such a renovation would entail. We believe our study will help answer those questions and should be completed in 2023. The future of the stadium is one of several important pieces to the long-term execution of the lakefront project, and our organization looks forward to continuing to work with our community partners and leaders to identify next steps and our role in helping advance this initiative.”

The potential need to build a new stadium has been discussed but it is not the Browns’ primary focus a source said.

In accordance with the lease with the team and NFL, the city of Cleveland is also conducting a stadium audit, which must be done every five years, this year. The audit details the life expectancy of current systems, infrastructure, stadium structure and components as well as potential repairs needed immediately, within the next five years and beyond five years.

The last audit was completed in 2018.

There are serious questions about the viability of FirstEnergy Stadium beyond the expiration of the 30-year lease following the 2028 season, including systems and the structure of the building.

In May, Cleveland city council approved another $10.533 million in emergency repairs for the stadium, including $500,000 for the audit. The older the stadium gets, the more repairs that have been needed, the costs of which are starting to grow.

One of the primary criticisms of the stadium – especially the public investment in it – is that the building is rarely used outside the 9-10 home football games per year, but since completing a $125 million renovation in 2015, the Browns have added multiple events from USA soccer to college football games to concerts to the event schedule.

This summer alone will feature Monster Truck Jam, two concerts and a Top Golf event before the preseason kicks off in August.

In general stadium evaluation terms two questions also must be answered – can or should the team continue to play on grass, and should they consider a dome – either for the current stadium or new one?

Again, no decisions have been made but conversations continue to be had behind closed doors.

The Haslam Sports Group aims to add even more events to the stadium schedule beyond football, but they are trying to determine if the current building can even support such an endeavor.

Case in point: the grounds crew will have seven days to convert the stadium from a concert venue and to get the field playable for football in time for the preseason opener, which will be a major challenge with natural grass.

The team is aware of die hard fans desire for the team to play on grass and outdoors, but let’s be honest, how much of a home field advantage has that given them the last 23 years? The answer you are looking for is none. The game has evolved, which is why they aren’t dismissing the idea of field turf or a dome at the outset.

The current structure of FirstEnergy Stadium was not designed with the ability to support a dome, so any roof that might be added would have to be built as an independent structure, similar to SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles, which features an open-air translucent canopy that was built independent of the seating bowl. The unique design of the L.A. venue allows the building to better withstand an earthquake.

In the spring of 2021, following two years of consultation with the city, the Haslam Sports Group announced their support for a massive land bridge and lakefront development project to connect the malls and downtown to the lakefront.

A source said that the team is committed to the land bridge and lakefront development project first and foremost.

The cost of the land bridge and lakefront development project alone is expected to be north of $200 million, but it would include finally developing the underutilized lakefront north of the stadium, which currently is a massive parking lot and waste of space west of North Coast harbor, which includes the Great Lakes Science Center, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and Voinovich Park.

Engineering studies and assessments have already been conducted and more are in the process of being completed for the proposed project.

The city of Cleveland approved new zoning for the lakefront in 2012 paving the way for potential development north of the stadium but nothing had materialized. As part of the preparations to host the 2021 NFL Draft, the warehouses north of the stadium were demolished and it is now a massive parking lot.

While the land bridge and lakefront development project won’t be the deciding factor in the team’s decision to stay or build new, it is fair to say the outcome of the proposed project will carry some weight as the stadium, infrastructure as well as development around the stadium are top of mind as they evaluate their options.

What has made Gateway, which includes Progressive Field and Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse, so successful on the south side of downtown was the extensive planning that went into the project, especially for the ballpark.

That planning has paid off and allowed both teams to extend the lives of the buildings for an additional 15 years.

The Cavaliers recently completed a $185 million renovation to the arena that cost taxpayers $70 million, and the team picked up the tab for $115 million. The ballpark is about to get a $435 million makeover beginning this fall which will be completed in 2025. The city will pay approximately $117 million, the county $138 million, the state $30 million and the team will contribute $150 million towards the project.

The Browns’ stadium build in the late 1990’s was a rush job from the cookie cutter design to cost overruns that forced corners to be cut during the construction. The poor planning and execution were a direct result of politicians’ haste to ease the pain over the original franchise bolting for Baltimore and get a team back on the field following a three-year hiatus.

To the Haslam Sports Group’s credit, they aren’t rushing into anything.

Because the Browns are still in the evaluation stages of their stadium situation, there are no dollar figures or even proposals on the table.

The Bills new open-air stadium outside of Buffalo will cost a reported $1.4 billion. The Tennessee Titans, Kansas City Chiefs and Washington Commanders are among the NFL teams exploring new stadium ideas. The state of Maryland recently approved $1.2 billion for renovations to the homes of the Ravens and Orioles.

A new open-air stadium would present no new advantages that their current stadium gives them but a dome would allow the region to recruit even more events.

Evaluating stadium options – to renovate again or build brand new – is just the first step in a lengthy process that will include a decision to stay or leave the lakefront, drawing up plans for whatever they decide, determining the cost to implement those plans as well as working out a new public-private partnership to pay for the project.

In short, there’s a long way to go, but the Browns are giving themselves and community stakeholders plenty of time to make the right decision as opposed to waiting until the last minute and repeating the mistakes of the late 1990s all over again.