In May 2013, several months after he bought the Cleveland Browns, Jimmy Haslam met with then-Mayor Frank Jackson to talk about renovating the stadium.
When the meeting was over and everyone else had left the room, team CEO Joe Banner put a long-shot question to Jackson’s chief of staff, Ken Silliman: Would the city consider building a new stadium – and if so, where?
Afterward, Silliman went to his boss.
“When I entered Mayor Jackson’s office, I resembled the robot in the long-ago Lost in Space TV series, spinning my head and sounding, ‘Danger! Danger!’” Silliman writes in the recently self-published Cleveland Sports Facilities: A 35-Year History.
That is one of the more eyebrow-raising anecdotes from Silliman’s firsthand account of the city’s dealings with the Browns, Cavaliers and Guardians. (The Browns declined to comment. The city went on to fund $30 million of a $132 million stadium refresh in 2014.)
The book gives readers a seat at the negotiating tables where local officials hammered out the deal to bring back the Browns, built the three downtown stadiums and held contentious talks with the Guardians over the team’s new lease.
Silliman, who also worked for Mayor Michael R. White in the 1990s, was in the room when those deals took shape. Now he chairs the Gateway Economic Development Corp., the nonprofit that owns and repairs (at taxpayer expense) Progressive Field and Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse.
Across 552 pages, Silliman tries to answer the questions at the heart of pro-sports financing: What does a good deal look like? When teams have the upper negotiating hand, how does a city mollify owners while protecting its own budget?
Cleveland Sports Facilities lays bare, in meticulous detail, the offers and counter-offers that negotiators tried to keep out of the media. During the recent Guardians talks, Silliman writes, he would brief public employees verbally but not in writing – thereby shielding draft lease terms from public records queries.
Silliman is not just out to dish on sports negotiations or defend the decisions of mayors White and Jackson, although he does both. The book also gives ample space to the arguments from sports deal critics.
And he reaches the conclusion that, as the public cost of a new stadium soars over $1 billion, taxpayers just can’t afford to keep up. He writes that Congress should limit team owners’ ability to play cities against one another with threats, spoken or veiled, to pick up and leave.
Congress should resurrect 1998 legislation written to curtail what’s known as “franchise free agency,” he argues. Or the federal government could offer tax credits for stadium rehabilitations – shifting the financial burden from tight municipal budgets to the U.S. Treasury.
“Until congressional action does occur – and don’t hold your breath waiting – local critics of sports facility deals can and should demand a full public debate” on the trade-offs of sports subsidies, Silliman writes.
And if teams do try to catch one-way flights out of town, cities can follow Cleveland’s example from the Art Modell days and take the owners to court, Silliman contends.
Silliman does not call for cities to shut off the spigot entirely. Instead, he argues that cities can reduce pro-sports corporate welfare by maintaining their stadiums instead of building new ones.
Built during a stadium boom in the 1990s, Browns Stadium, Progressive Field and Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse ought to live long lives like historic Fenway Park, Wrigley Field and Lambeau Field, he writes.
It won’t be easy, as teams accelerate the arms race for better and better home fields, Silliman writes. But in the view of this City Hall veteran now sounding “Danger!” to us all, tens of millions of dollars in renovations might hold a billion-dollar demand at bay.