Within six months of the Cleveland Browns' rude departure, a skeleton organization went to work in Berea to prepare the new Browns for the next owner.
At press time, it was still impossible to know who that owner might be, how much he'd pay or precisely when he would be selected. But as thousands of laborers race to finish the stadium by next summer, two people have been at work non-stop to make sure that the undoubtedly exorbitant franchise fee does more than buy a sweet stadium contract for their future boss.
Here's a little bit about them and how they view their uncertain jobs.
Assembling a winnerJoe Mack is best known for building the personnel staff that helped the Carolina Panthers get to the NFC Division Championship in only its second season. He's worked in pro football player personnel for 20 years and been a part of five NFL playoff teams and one Super Bowl winner.
SBN asked Mack, Browns director of player personnel, to discuss the intricacies of building an organization from scratch.
When you start at ground zero you have to put a footprint down somewhere. Where do you make that first step?
You have to create some sort of organizational structure to work with. I've created a flowchart-or template-of what it takes to make a successful organization.
What's that flowchart based on?
A determination of where we want to be. For us, the answer to that question is the Super Bowl. But in order to get there you have to put qualified people in place.
So you start by building the different departments-training and medical staff, a video staff, scouts. Then you have to establish a budget, establish relationships with the medical community, get equipment like helmets, pads, weights. It's the nuts and bolts that people don't realize have to be put into place before you can even begin thinking about fielding a team on Sunday.
Parallel to that is the marketing staff. They're the ones that generate the revenue flow that comes in from game days.
That sounds like a lot to do in a short time. How do you determine what order to follow?
Once you start, most of it gets done at the same time. But first, you have know how many people the organization will need. Will they be under salary or contracted? How much will it cost to get everything up and running? You put a budget together and tell ownership how much money you'll need to spend in order to get it going.
Equipment, video people, scouts, medical training and support staff for all of them are in that first group you have to put together. They have to be in place before a single player comes in.
So once the backbone is assembled, the players come next?
Yes. That's when you begin identifying players and bringing them in. That's the job for the scouts. But you have to make sure that if they bring them (players) in, you're able to take care of their needs. That's what the backbone is for-a medical staff for rehabilitation and training; equipment available and ready to be used; a video staff to evaluate players and help the coaches get ready for the season.
Did you use this technique in North Carolina with the Panthers or have you had to modify it in Cleveland?
Cleveland has been a learning experience. It reinforced what I'd learned before. (Carolina Panthers Owner Bill) Richardson did a good job and gave me the resources to put together a strong staff. That's where I learned you have to hire the most qualified people that you can. If you do that in the beginning, in the right way, you'll strengthen the organization as a whole.
So has the lack of an ownership group here made you rethink any part of your strategy?
It's certainly a unique situation. The biggest goal has been to set up a stable base so that when one is named they feel comfortable. But I don't focus on the fact that there's no owner. I try to think if I was an owner coming in, what would I need in place and go from there.
You've begun the process of bringing scouts on board. How's the scouting process going to work?
We will evaluate the World League and the CFL first. Then we'll look at the pre-season NFL players who don't make rosters. We'll bring those guys in and have them contribute. After that we'll look at who we know will be free agents at the end of the season and send our scouts on the road to look at the college players.
Has there been one part of this job that's more challenging than the Panthers?
The fact that we don't have an owner. It doesn't preoccupy you, but you try not to overreach. You want whoever the owner is to feel comfortable when they come in because you've got everything in place. But you also don't want them to feel uninvolved.
So what changes do you expect once an owner is named by the league?
Not too many. Someone with the wherewithal to buy the Browns will be an astute businessperson. They'll see things are going well and that we're making progress. Most likely they'll just want to continue with this path. But obviously, whatever they spend, that person or group has the justification to do what they want with the team.
Has this job been easier or harder than your work with the Panthers?
With Carolina, I didn't realize everything that had to be done and how much there was. I literally had to start from scratch and develop a method to putting together an organization. Here I'm able to pull from that experience. In that respect, Cleveland's been easier.
The stadium's being built. There's a training facility already in existence. We didn't have those things in Carolina. Those are also things that make the club that much more attractive to prospective owners.
It's almost a turnkey situation. If you're an owner, you have to appreciate something like that. I mean, the fans love us already. They already support the team. I can only imagine how good it would be to be an owner entering that type of situation.
Selling a memory
Bill Futterer spent 17 years working with difficult real estate and sports marketing projects-including marketing the NFL's expansion Carolina Panthers and NBA's expansion Charlotte Hornets. In 1996, he was appointed president of the Cleveland Browns Trust by the NFL.
Futterer's job? To pave the way for the Browns' return to Cleveland in 1999. Futterer doesn't care who the owner will be-as long as that owner doesn't have to worry about anything except taking over.
SBN had a pre-season scrimmage with Futterer about smoothing the ruffled feathers that the old team left behind, and building a high performance organization for the next owner.
The Browns' situation is different from other expansion teams in the league because of its unique circumstances. How did the process of bringing the Browns back to Cleveland begin after the league announced a 1999 return?
We had to look at it clinically first. Without emotion. It was difficult for the initial staff, except me, because they were all Northeast Ohioans. Then we factored in the emotional aspects of the fans.
But because no one had ever done this exact job before, we needed a fundamentally sound business plan-which we have adhered to over the last two years in a remarkable way. There's been one philosophical foundation that's run throughout the plan-a triangular relationship among the fans, the players and the front office. Over the last several decades, there's been a separation from this relationship. It needs to return. We can do this in Cleveland, where there's a passionate fan base.
The plan's been divided into three activities: repair relationships, generate sales and transition the organization to new ownership.
What do you mean by "repair relationships"?
Because of what happened with the Browns leaving, there's a lot of work that has to be done to repair relationships between the Browns and the fans-the season ticket holders and the general public. There are a lot of hard feelings out there. We also have to repair relationships with the media, the corporate community and the political community.
We spent the first nine months-from July 1996 to March 1997-focusing on this. In my first two years in Cleveland I made 277 personal appearances and talked to 46,000 fans. We also used other strategies, such as a Web site-which has attracted over one million visitors in 1998 alone. That's an astronomical number, considering there's no team and no coaches yet.
Has that helped spur season ticket sales?
From March to August 1997 we held a private sale for season tickets to 1995 season ticket holders. We renewed 87 percent of the 39,700 season tickets from 1995. Then we targeted private PSLs and the Dawg Pound season tickets. Finally, we held a private sale of PSLs in September 1997. When you add those to the luxury suites, we had a total of 52,449 applications. That's the most in the 50-year history of the franchise.
How are you positioning yourself for the transition from the NFL running the organization to a real ownership group taking charge?
We've established relationships for them to use. We've built relationships with all the vendors. When an owner walks in the door, we want them to open up a book to any category and understand the relationship we have with current suppliers. We're doing that in every phase of the operations. We're also upgrading the computer hardware and software so that they'll have a network that's up and running.
Considering that it's hard enough to market existing products, how difficult has it been to package and sell something that won't exist physically until 1999?
That really depends on whether the existing product is a good one. In our case, there was an extremely good track record over the past 50 years. This was more of a repackaging or repositioning of that product. The market has received our new product with open arms.
If you think about it, marketing is really just fulfilling a want or need. The market here wanted 53 players in brown-and-orange uniforms. That they want that and we can deliver it makes it easy. Besides, they (the fans) could see the product every Sunday and Monday. There just wasn't any packaging here.
I would compare it to 25 years ago, when McDonald's was starting to branch out to the smaller towns. You could go to a big city and get a Big Mac, but not in your small town. Until it came to your town, you had to experience McDonald's elsewhere. So the NFL product is tangible. You can travel to another city and experience it.
How has lack of an owner affected the decisions you've made?
It hasn't made that much difference to us. We're adhering to a plan. Our next phase of PSL sales will take place after the new owner's been named. It takes months to put together a program of advertising, promotion and public relations for this type of sale. We'll have a program ready to hand over to the new owner.
What about your future once the owner's finally in place?
I haven't had time to think about it much. I would assume during the transition period that they'd want to take advantage of my sales and marketing skills, and my knowledge of the fan base, but it's premature to think whether I want to be part of the permanent staff.
When you consider something like job security, everyone knew that it was a transition only and they're only making decisions that affect preparing the organization for new owners.
Have the rabid Cleveland fans made your job of endearing the Browns to the city again any easier?
Passion is always better than apathy. What's needed is to direct the passion the right way by being open and honest with the fans. In other markets and in other sports I see a lot of apathy. It's hard to address, but it goes back to the product. The NFL product is a good one and the fans are passionate, so it's made it that much easier. I believe when 53 guys in brown and orange run onto the field people will forget about the hiatus. Football will be back in Cleveland.