Cleveland goes long: The Browns are the talk of the town
Situated two blocks from the Browns’ FirstEnergy Stadium, the Barley House sports bar has thrived in downtown Cleveland for 10 years despite its neighbor’s persistent losing.
Now that the Browns have become an NFL sensation with bona fide on-field stars, the bar’s owners are eager to see what that could mean for business. They’re negotiating a three-year lease to take over a shuttered bar across the street — a second location they think will break even annually based on Browns game-day revenue alone, said co-owner Corey May.
“We joke about the LeBron James stimulus package for downtown Cleveland, that’s exactly what this is now,” May said.
On Aug. 3, the bar was jammed before a scrimmage — almost 19 months to the day after some fans held a parade to mock their winless 2017 season.
“Needless to say, the people of Cleveland are definitely excited,” May said.
It’s not just Clevelanders. Seemingly every part of the NFL’s business has taken notice of the energy around the Browns — sponsors, media, retail, ticketing, you name it.
Every football season has potential rags-to-riches storylines. But few teams have attracted such a bright national spotlight in such a short amount of time as the 2019 Cleveland Browns. The on-field expectations combined with marketable stars have translated into jumps in every conceivable business metric.
Take Anheuser-Busch InBev, for example, which struck gold with its Bud Light Fridge promotion in 2018. That’s when it supplied Cleveland bars with fridges of free Bud Light, handed out to fans when the Browns finally broke a 19-game winless streak.
This season, Cleveland is a top national priority for Bud Light, said Nick Kelly, head of U.S. sports marketing for ABI.
“Are they real? Are they going to blow up? It’s the one thing everybody’s going to watch,” Kelly said. “We are going to closely watch because we put so much equity into them last year that we’re going to try and do a bit more this year.”
The Browns have been bad and mostly anonymous for years. But this year, the team is everywhere. Cleveland will play four prime-time games this season; it hasn’t had more than two since 2008. Network training camp coverage this month has trained its sights on Berea, Ohio, as much as any training camp in the league.
“The Cowboys are always going to be the most talked about team,” said Mike Mulvihill, Fox Sports’ executive vice president, head of strategy and analytics. “But it’s probably correct to say that the Browns this year were the second-most talked about team. That hasn’t been true for as long as I’ve been doing this.”
Fox pushed to have the Browns host the Steelers in Week 11 on “Thursday Night Football,” based in part on all the excitement surrounding the team. Fox wanted Cleveland to host the game and picked its longtime rival as the opponent. “The Browns Thursday game was probably the one that we spent the most time talking about this year, both internally and with the league,” Mulvihill said.
CBS, which carries the AFC schedule, has scheduled the Browns for three late Sunday national windows; last year it only carried one Browns game during that time.
“There has been a lot of talk about Cleveland this offseason — they are certainly a team on the radar nationally with the moves they have made,” said Dan Weinberg, CBS Sports’ executive vice president of programming. “We will look to increase their distribution when possible, but in the end there are many factors when we regionalize — one of the biggest being how they perform on the field.”
The increased attention is mainly focused on the Browns’ two biggest stars: quarterback Baker Mayfield and wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. Mayfield has the top-selling jersey in the NFL since July 1, Fanatics reports.
“You can’t take your eyes off [Mayfield],” said Stephanie Druley, executive vice president of event and studio production at ESPN. “I was living in Austin [Texas] when he was at Lake Travis High School, and from that point on, he’s one of those players where you just feel like he’s got ‘it.’ And I can’t define it, but it just feels that way about him.”
Browns COO David Jenkins agreed, calling Mayfield the difference-maker. The Browns’ struggles — they haven’t been to the playoffs since 2002 — occasionally have been punctuated by periods of optimism, but the QB position has been a consistent problem for the team.
How popular are the Cleveland Browns this season?
“I think it’s new ground; what makes this so new is that we have what we think is our franchise quarterback,” Jenkins said.
For the team, that interest has translated into better season-ticket sales — it’s now “in the mid-60,000s” for the 68,000-seat stadium, up about 20% from last year. There’s a new a season-ticket waiting list, with several thousand people who have turned over $100 non-refundable deposits, Jenkins said.
Single-game tickets are sold out, and Ticketmaster says the Browns are No. 2 in the NFL for resale volume, up from No. 20 last year.
The offseason’s real inflection point came on the day the Browns traded for Beckham. Seven of 12 available suites were signed that day; the other five came in short order.
The ticket-buying surge came despite a 7% average boost in prices. There’s still plenty of runway on ticket prices, Jenkins said, noting the team ranked 31st in average price last year.
This offseason, the Browns also have signed new non-exclusive sponsorship deals with Progressive, Kia and Serpentini Chevrolet. But prominent inventory is still available, Jenkins said, including naming rights to the franchise’s practice facility and stadium club areas.
“You can’t go anywhere right now without running into someone who wants to talk about the Browns,” he said, “and that feels good.”
Editor’s note: This story is revised from the print edition.