Former Browns and Ravens owner Art Modell's push to use television increased pro football's popularity dramatically and made him one of the game's most influential contributors. Yet his decision to move his team out of Cleveland in 1996 still angers Browns fans.
Modell, 87, died early yesterday morning of natural causes, according to his family.
"Art Modell's leadership was an important part of the league's explosive growth during the 1960s and beyond," NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement. "Art was a visionary who understood the critical role that mass viewing of games on broadcast television could play in growing the NFL."
Modell helped build the league into the nation's most popular sport by negotiating lucrative network TV contracts in the late 1960's. He was a driving force in leading ABC to show games on Monday nights starting in 1970.
"Along with Pete Rozelle, Art Modell helped revolutionize television's impact on sports," said former Browns and Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi. "He created preseason doubleheaders that drew 80,000 people when the games were drawing 15,000. Won two championships. He was a true bon vivant and a wonderful man to work for."
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But most Browns fans never forgave Modell for leaving Cleveland in 1996 because of problems securing a new stadium. He moved the team to Baltimore, whose Colts went to Indianapolis in 1984. The Browns eventually were awarded an expansion team and resumed play in Cleveland in 1999.
"It was tragic how he broke the heart of Cleveland fans," Browns Hall of Fame running back Jim Brown told the Cleveland Plain-Dealer. "But that's the reality and nothing can be done about it. I have a lot of respect for Art. I always considered him a friend. He was a great visionary for the game of football. He should be in the Hall of Fame."
Modell, who once owned several dozen Giants season tickets, was instrumental in helping the Tisch family become co-owners of the club after Timothy Mara sold his share after the 1990 season. Robert Tisch purchased Mara's share.
"Our league and my father and our family benefited from his great qualities and foresight," said Steve Tisch, one of Robert Tisch's sons who now owns the Giants along with the family of team president John Mara. "It was Art who formally introduced my father to Wellington Mara, which ultimately led to my father purchasing 50 percent of the Giants franchise. For that, and for Art's good nature, we will always be grateful."
Said John Mara: "Art Modell was one of the greatest owners in the history of the NFL. He contributed in so many ways to the success of this league and he deserves a place in Canton. More importantly, he was a decent man and a great friend to my family."
Modell sold a minority stake in the Ravens in 2000 to Baltimore businessman Steve Bisciotti, who owns the team. Bisciotti left Modell a 1-percent stake in the team, and a large portrait of Modell hangs in the foyer of the Ravens' training facility in Owings Mills, Md.
Modell believed he was unfairly criticized for leaving Cleveland, arguing that civic and business leaders forced his hand because they wouldn't agree to help finance a new stadium. The city eventually approved funding for the one in which the Browns play.
"I have a great legacy, tarnished somewhat by the move," Modell said in 1999. "The politicians and the bureaucrats saw fit to cover their own rear ends by blaming it on me."
In another interview, Modell said, "The fans in Cleveland were loyal and supportive. They lived and died with me every Sunday for 35 years."