Friday, August 3, 2012

Browns Introduce New Owner Jimmy Haslam

Video courtesy: WKYC

A billion dollars bought Jimmy Haslam a new watch — and an NFL team.

Thirty-three days ago, the new majority owner of the Browns — pending National Football League owners' approval — was a minority shareholder in the Browns' blood rival, the Pittsburgh Steelers. Yesterday, Haslam reached terms with Randy Lerner to buy the Browns for nearly double what Lerner's dad, Al, and Carmen Policy paid for franchise rights in 1998.

And yesterday, with that deal in place, Haslam slipped off his old timepiece, donned a Browns watch, and put the Steel City in his rearview mirror.

Photo: John Reid, Cleveland Browns
“This is a great day for the Cleveland Browns,” said Browns president Mike Holmgren inside the team's chilly Berea practice facility, introducing his new boss, whom he had just met yesterday. The whole transition has been a whirlwind affair. Dressed in an orange tie and plain, powder blue suit, the personable Haslam greeted the Cleveland media in an accent with a just a hint of drawl that conveyed the truck-stop magnate's Tennessee roots. He recounted meeting with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, who said he had never seen a deal for a franchise sale come together so quickly.

And for once, it's a bright day for Browns fans. Thousands of hard-bit true believers turned up to Browns camp to watch the team practice on this sweltering afternoon. Despite the muggy weather and a tough allergy season, they were breathing easily for the first time in years. Inside, during the half-hour introductory press conference, Haslam was quick to show his new colors.

“We have one mission,” said Haslam, “to bring winning back to Cleveland.”

Unlike the team's previous owner, Haslam is a proven winner. He made the money for this major investment running Pilot Flying J, the country's largest truck stop chain, which was founded by his father, James Haslam II, with a single gas station in 1958. By the time Jimmy took over, it was a thriving national business, and it has only grown since.

If it's possible to turn around the Browns' dismal record as quickly as it changed hands, Haslam believes he has the team to do it. He cited Holgren's Super Bowl ring and called him a future Hall of Famer, but said he wouldn't comment on any personnel matters, from front office to minority owners, until his ownership is formally approved by NFL franchise owners, tentatively in October.

Haslam described the beleaguered Browns as a “great, iconic, storied franchise.” While he was quick to praise the Pittsburgh team as “a great organization” run by “class people who do things right,” he warmed up to the hometown press by refusing to use the words “Pittsburgh” or “Steelers.”

Haslam also avoided using the following phrases to describe the Browns' record in recent years: “soul-sucking disappointment,” “underachievement” and “wasted opportunities” – though he did note that only two of the teams' 10 previous first-round draft picks are on its current roster, and the team has to do more with its opportunities.

Haslam did predict a new, different business approach for the Browns. In addition to a winning, he anticipates an increased emphasis on marketing. The home field might not remain “Browns Stadium” much longer. Naming rights are just one business opportunity the new owner wants to explore.

He wouldn't rule out updating the team's traditional uniform, either. “The reality today is that we live in a marketing world,” said Haslam.

Now a billion or so dollars poorer, Haslam needs to work more. He anticipates remaining as the president-CEO of his travel-center business, in addition to being a “hands-on” owner.

With his wife Susan “Dee” Haslam and father in attendance, the new Browns boss said he's already looking for a Cleveland home and will split his time between the city by the lake and Tennessee, the headquarters of his other business. While he's no newcomer to the NFL, he said successful owners including the Patriots owner Robert Kraft have already offered to give him a crash course in how to run a team the right way.

And Haslam, a lifelong sports fan and former athlete who already knows his new roster, thinks Cleveland will finally have a contender, and Pittsburgh will once again have a real rival.

“There's no reason why this can't be a winning team,” he said. — D.X. Ferris

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